Five years have elapsed since the Chinese government officially
announced the Belt and Road Initiative. It no doubt aims to create the
most extensive and exhaustive infrastructure network literally
connecting the world, from rural provinces in China to cities and ports
of Eurasia, Africa and even Latin America. Often dubbed a 21st century
version of the Silk Road, the initiative is definitely one of the
largest investment projects in human history. The planned trade routes
from east to west bode well in the advent of a new era, where wealth
flows west to east.
Although the entire picture is a bit murky, it appears that my
country of Japan, geographically speaking, is not included in the BRI.
However, just because the BRI excludes Japan does not mean it has no
impact on the country. Rather, Japan is one of the countries most
impacted by the BRI.
The Japanese reaction to the BRI seems ambivalent. In the last few
years, Japan tried to build its own initiative. The country talked with
the United States, Australia and India about the establishment of a
joint regional infrastructure project. In July 2018, Japan, the US and
Australia agreed to invest in infrastructure projects in the
Indo-Pacific. (Interestingly, India was not included.) The initiative is
clearly intended as an alternative to the BRI.
On the other hand, in May and July last year Japan reversed its
initial position and voiced its willingness to join the BRI, which the
Chinese government welcomes. A lot of Japanese companies have found
opportunities in the BRI and are eager to list their names as possible
Of course there are issues to be dealt with. The two nations have a
complicated history -- they have experienced both friendship and feuds.
In addition, Japan has concerns about whether BRI projects are in line
with international standards. It is true that both sides could easily
find tension in both what happened and what is happening. It is also
true, however, that both sides have the willingness to overcome the
problems and jointly go forward. One should not sacrifice the other to
The BRI has had a profound impact on Japan, in allowing Japan to
reconsider the approach to its most important neighbor. After all, Japan
views China as a valuable partner as well as a tough rival on both
economic and strategic issues. It is neither good nor bad -- it is as it
is. But it is good that Japan is showing a pragmatic approach rather
than closing itself off from the BRI without looking at the virtue of
the project. While seemingly contradictory, Japan’s openness toward the
BRI while seeking alternatives is the fruit of realistic deliberations
weighing the pros and cons.
The most important takeaway the BRI holds for my country is Japan
should be open to international, particularly Asian, stakeholders to the
extent that Japan could benefit from contributing to such stakeholders.
After losing World War II, Japanese foreign policy has not always been
assertive. The BRI gives Japan, not only on a country level but also on
an individual level, the great opportunity to ponder its position in
Asia and what it will create together with its neighbors.
Overcoming political and diplomatic discourse and working hand in
hand, China and Japan could improve the project as well as their
bilateral relationship. In doing so, Japan could help realize the very
spirit of the BRI: to connect everything, develop open and free trade
routes, and make this world a better place.
The author has worked as an insurance specialist for 15 years, developing his career in customer relations and international business planning.