Japan and China need each other, but mutual suspicion in the relationship prevents serious progress. Japan should look to other middle-powers in the region for a secure future, Stephen Nagy writes.
Time provides perspective. Since I wrote on historical revisionism between China and Japan with History in hindsight: China, Japan and versions of the truth for Policy Forum in 2015, there has been a change in the tone and trajectory of Sino-Japanese relations. The lingering questions for policymakers is whether this shift in relations is superficial or substantial.
To answer this question, it is useful to recall the bilateral dynamics when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012. Abe inherited the diplomatic mess associated with the nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Xi was under enormous pressure domestically to build his nationalist credentials and push back against what the Chinese understood as Japan changing the status quo of the islands.
Following the nationalisation, relations quickly negatively spiralled with each state’s ambassadors in London appearing separately on the BBC comparing each other’s political leaders to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort in a farcical war of words.
Verbal jousting was soon overshadowed by the September 2015 military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the ‘Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression’ and claims in the China Daily that Abe ‘holds a dream of militarism.’
Polls showed that bilateral relations weren’t just damaged at the policymaker level but also at the citizen level, with Japanese people showing deep apology fatigue and disquietude toward criticism of Japan over historical issues. There were also high levels of agreement in Japan with the polling statements that ‘China’s actions to secure resource, energy and food look selfish,’ and ‘China’s actions are incompatible with international rules.’
The same poll also found that Chinese citizens were equally negative in their view of Japan over ‘Japan’s lack of a proper apology and remorse over the history of invasion of China’ and high agreement with the statement that ‘Japanese purchase of the Diaoyu Islands is fuelling confrontation.’
At the people-to-people level, it interestingly showed that Chinese people’s attitudes toward Japan have kept improving while Japanese views of China remain negative. The improvement is in part related to the tourism diplomacy that Japan has engaged in to welcome millions of Chinese tourists to Japan. Most seem to leave Japan with favourable sentiments towards Japan and its people.
Japanese tourists to China remain small in number likely accounting for continued negative views of China. That being said, lingering negative views of China cannot just be explained away by the lack of tourism to China and apology fatigue. News about the Hong Kong protests, Uyghur re-education camps, the removal of term limits, and Japan’s long history of engagement with China contribute to continued and broad negative sentiments of China in Japan.
On the maritime security front, from the nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands until now, things have not died down. Japan has seen Chinese vessels intrude into Japanese territory surrounding the Islands and build and then militarise artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Through the same time period, Japan has strengthened its strategic partnerships with Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India to name a few. It has also spearheaded the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, the Asian Africa Growth Corridor, and the Data Free Flow with Trust Initiative. Importantly, the US-Japan alliance not only remains robust, it has deepened and broadened over the past five years.
These initiatives and relations are understood in Beijing as a containment strategy to ‘keep China down’ and prevent the China Dream from being realised.
From the viewpoint of Beijing, they infringe upon China’s core interests of state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, and national reunification, all considered basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.
These Japanese initiatives are not meant to contain China but to offer real alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its development model, and its rapidly expanding economic, diplomatic, and military influence
At the same time though, these initiatives do send a strong signal that the structural issues that underlie this relationship are enduring.
Both states are deeply distrustful of each other. China continues to suspect Japan of being part of a US strategy to contain China while Japan has deep concerns about China’s long-term intentions in the region and what this will mean for Japan’s security. It is also concerned about its ability to act independently when the Chinese economy surpasses the US economy.
These concerns aside, Japan and China have left the door open to third-country business cooperation, and continued RCEP negotiations. At the October 2018 visit to Beijing by Abe, both parties signed a Memorandum on Enhancing Youth Exchange and concurred to designate next year as a Japan-China Youth Exchange Promotion Year to further facilitate exchange between the youth generation of both countries. Part of that agreement is for both nations to promote the exchange of 30,000 students in the next five years.
The rapprochement that Japan and China are experiencing is superficial, and in part being driven by economic considerations. Japan needs consumers and China’s irreplaceable production network. Without a functional relationship with China, Japan will not be able to achieve sustainable economic growth as its population declines.
China needs Japan too. Japan’s technological skills and experience in manufacturing and building high-quality infrastructure will need to be leveraged to realise the China Dream and to legitimise the BRI.
China also needs Japan to manage its relations with the US. Japan can be a bridge China could use to de-escalate the deepening strategic rivalry between the US and China, or it can be a powerful partner to constrain China’s ambitions in the region.
The former would see Japan find opportunities for the US and China to cooperate, to forge shared norms, and new forms of institutional cooperation such that their relationship gravitates toward rules-based competition. Japan should work with other like-minded middle powers to foster an environment that works towards these goals.
The latter, on the other hand, would see an intensification of the strategic rivalry between China and the US, pressure on Japan and other allies of the US to contribute to the US’s efforts.
The choice is clear in this regard. Despite its own troubles with China, Japan must work with like-minded middle powers to de-escalate tensions, forge confidence-building measures, and to articulate clearly that rules-based competition is in everyone’s interests.