Tuesday, February 21, 2006

David and Goliath: Japan’s changing relationship with China

Today, I would like to post a new article by AH. This is his first post on this blog. The relationship between two giants in the Far East is an important issue to the world. I hope his article will be a great help for readers to understand East Asia. Thank you.



The current degradation of Sino-Japanese relations comes at a tumultuous time for East Asia. Both countries along with neighboring states are experiencing growth and change at unprecedented levels. Certainly Japan’s changing relationship with The People’s Republic of China (PRC) amid rising political, economic and military tension warrants analysis. Although Japan and China are East Asia’s de facto leaders, most experts have focused on China’s military and economic growth and its impact on regional and indeed, international politics. However, it will not be China alone who dictates policy in East Asia; Japan, South Korea and the US will also yield considerable influence.

Sino-Japanese relations have historically been marred by conflict and misunderstanding. Simmering disputes ranging from historical revisions of history in Japanese text books, the Senkaku and Ryukyuan Island's territorial dispute, oil drilling in the South China Sea, military atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine; provide clear illustration of the variety of combative issues facing these two regional heavy weights.

Recent mass anti-Japanese protests across the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen attest to the growing sentiment against Japan within both the domestic society and the Chinese government. Burgeoning intrinsic notions of Chinese nationalism have been replaced by an overt Chinese nationalistic ideology fostered by Beijing. This apathy by China resonates today with political relations between Tokyo and Beijing decidedly cold.

While it is often the case that economic trade plays the most influential role in state-to-state relations, things are a bit different for the current relationship between Japan and China. While political relations are staled, economic trade has exploded in the last five years with China now Japan’s largest trading partner. The future economic impact will be profound. As China rises it will pull Japan and its surrounding Asian neighbours with it. Accordingly, China will assume majoritive control of economic growth in East Asia. This growth is projected to push the regions economies to their highest GDP’s in history.

However, specific to the Sino-Japanese rivalry is the fact that increased economic integration has not resulted in conciliatory relations. Rather, despite the trade boom across the South China Sea, Tokyo and Beijing have both adopted reciprocal hard-line political policies towards each other. The result is an antagonistic relationship that continually boils with odium. As China assumes a more aggressive hegemonic stance, Japan finds itself seeking to shore up its economic and political influence in the region. Thus the role of other East Asian states and the US become increasingly significant factors shaping relations between the PRC and Japan.

South Korea’s (ROK) role in the tug of war between Beijing and Tokyo represents an interesting case to view the evolving Sino-Japanese relationship. As Beijing and Seoul forge closer ties, relations between South Korea and Japan have begun to sour. More disturbing, the ROK’s relationship with the US is increasingly challenged by growing Chinese influence. As South Korea and China begin to form a clear paternalistic relationship with Beijing playing the lead, the US-Japan-South Korean partnership has begun to show signs of failure. It is evident that a majority in South Korea have begun to view China as the country that will most positively impact their future. Such a position pits Beijing against Washington for long-term influence in Korean politics and demonstrates a shift away from reliance on the US military presence for stability in the region. To China analysts, it is clear that Beijing would never tolerate a US military presence once Seoul and Pyongyang have developed placatory relations. A reunified Korean Peninsula under Chinese influence is a possible reality and although Seoul currently enjoys a relative trade surplus with Beijing, in the long-term China will assume a controlling portion of the Korean market by sheer economic strength. Chinese dominance in South Korean economics and politics represents a direct challenge to US and Japanese influence on the Korean Peninsula.

A casualty of strained relations between Japan and China is Washington’s relationship with Seoul. As the US is in the process of troop reduction in South Korea, Washington’s ability to affect Korean leadership has also diminished. The ongoing six party talks concerning North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program elucidates the strained relationship between the US and the ROK. Of issue is that the US sought a more hawkish attitude from Seoul opposing the DPRK’s nuclear weapons development program, and has been disillusioned by South Korea’s inability to form a concrete policy of engagement with the North. Washington has been angered by Seoul’s reluctance to take a hard line against Pyongyang. South Korea’s unwillingness to align with US posture against North Korea reveals clear fractures in the strained relationship between these two once solid allies. As Seoul pulls away from Washington, Tokyo reaps the rewards of being a steadfast friend and ally. US-Japan relations are at an all time high and things look bright for further economic cooperation and the fostering of military rapport. As Tokyo begins to re-examine the boundaries of its Article 9 anti-war stipulation, Washington is eager to push Japan into its missile-defence system and has tied itself with Tokyo in a joint declaration supporting Taiwan on the Sino-Taiwanese issue.

Sino-Japanese relations will continue to disintegrate if no positive action is taken by either Tokyo or Beijing. As these two giants fight for control, the totality of China’s economic and military power are of concern to Japan. In the face of this, Japan has actively sought to sign several bilateral trade agreements with its neighbors, seeking to make itself more economically attractive and competitive with the PRC. Long-term, Japan will rely on US military capability for its defence against both China and North Korea. However, Japan must revise its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) under US guidance to become a larger, more assertive and defence orientated force.

Ultimately, there will be no clear ‘winner’ in the Sino-Japanese rivalry. These two will continue to eye each other in the years to come. Washington’s ties with Tokyo will prevent any outright military action by the PRC against Japan. The same cannot be said of the US-Japan-Taiwan relationship where Beijing increasingly voices direct hostile military rhetoric towards Taipei. This relationship is fundamentally different and serves as a further impediment in Sino-Japanese relations. In the future, on an economic level, China will possess the largest and strongest economy in Asia and perhaps the world. This does not mean that China will control global economics. Japan’s economy will also flourish under China’s growth with both states competing for position well into this century.


by AH