East Asian Relations, How Does Japan View China?

East Asian Relations, How Does Japan View China?

Japan’s view as it enters competition with China and the West begins to focus on it.

Article on January 5th,2022 on The Economist (Japanese version)


A powerful, but also dangerously overconfident nation

 The earliest reliable record of an official mission sent from Japan to China dates back to 238 AD. According to this, the Japanese queen Himiko sent a messenger to Wei, one of the three kingdoms, offering 10 slaves and a 20-foot-long textile.

 By the 7th century, the clan Yamato, which controlled most of Japan at that time, began to regularly send envoys with tribute to the courts of the “Sui” and “Tang” dynasties. Japan adopted the Chinese script, and Japanese priests and scholars absorbed Chinese religion.

Japan has watched over its larger neighbors

 For centuries, Japan has watched its larger neighbors warily from close quarters.  In the late 1970s and 1980s, it helped China modernize, aided by its guilt over wartime atrocities. Japanese companies were among the first to enter China’s growing market.

At the same time, Japan’s leaders were quick to sound the alarm about China’s expansionism. This was especially true after the conflict over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), an uninhabited reef in the East China Sea, heated up between 2010 and 2012.

 Kenichiro Sasae, former ambassador to the United States, said, “We warned the United States. We warned the U.S. that this was not just a small problem between Japan and China, but a sign that a major power was growing in the region.

 Such views were not heeded in the West.

 At the time, Western leaders were focused only on the benefits of integrating China into the global economy.

 In recent years, however, China’s oppression in Hong Kong, repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and threats of force around Taiwan have made many Western governments more skeptical.

 As we enter an era of competition with China, Japan’s views are being called into question.

 Some of the most powerful government officials in the US and UK have begun to talk about bringing Japan (and other countries in the region, including South Korea) into the Five Eyes, a network of five English-speaking countries sharing classified information.

 The goal is to gain a better understanding of China.

Fifteen years ago, if I talked to [Western colleagues] about the negative aspects of China, they would treat me like a right-wing China-hating academic.

 ”Fifteen years ago, if I talked about the negative aspects of China to [my Western colleagues], I was treated like a right-wing China-hating scholar,” recalls Yasuhiro Matsuda, a China expert at the University of Tokyo. Now they listen to me.

Three Trends of Concern

 Japanese experts on China have pointed out that there are three trends of concern.

 The first trend is China’s overconfidence. They really believe that the West is in decline,” said Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former deputy chief cabinet secretary.

 When Chinese leaders talk about their political system being better than the chaotic democracy of the United States, Japanese scholars believe they are not pretending so.

 Some fear that it resembles the vanity that Japan itself displayed in the run-up to World War II.

 As one high-ranking Japanese diplomat put it: “We always try to remind them of the mistakes we made before the war. And they say, ‘No way. We are totally different. But from our point of view, the similarities are growing.

 The second trend is that China is shifting from a collective leadership system to an individual leadership system under President Xi Jinping.

 Japanese government officials are concerned that China is becoming more like North Korea in its reliance on the judgment of a single person.

 In fact, in this view, President Xi may even be more isolated than the Swiss-educated North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

“He knows nothing about the free world. Kim probably knows our world better than Xi,” Kanehara said.

 Finally, there is the state of the Chinese economy.

 As President Xi has recently clamped down on large private companies with his slogan of “common wealth,” many in Tokyo are worried about China’s future economic growth.

I’m getting invitations from the Chinese to invest more. “The Chinese are now inviting us to invest more, and they say we’d better not miss the boat.

 An advisor to a major Japanese bank said. But when the Chinese say that, it’s when they are in some kind of trouble.

 China’s support for infrastructure projects abroad through its signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative has declined dramatically in recent years.

 Tadashi Maeda, president of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, an overseas development finance institution, argues that this is a sign that China’s economy is facing “serious problems” at home.

 If China’s economic growth slows, Japan’s own economy will be severely affected. China is Japan’s largest export destination, accounting for 22% of total exports.

 Critics and others who observe Sino-Japanese relations fear that Xi will try to stir up nationalistic passions with his adventurous diplomacy over Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to distract the Chinese public from the economic downturn.

Cautious about the possibility of invasion of Taiwan

 Still, many Japanese scholars are more skeptical than their U.S. counterparts about the idea of an imminent war over Taiwan, says Rumi Aoyama, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

 Japanese experts believe that President Xi will not risk his power by taking the risky step of a full-scale invasion of the main island of Taiwan in the near future.

 In Japan, as in other countries, military and security experts tend to be more worried than political analysts about the possibility that Xi will use force to gain control of Taiwan.

 But even they are often more ambiguous than their American counterparts.

There can be a lot of latitude in predicting when it will happen.

 As the U.S. military commander suggested to Congress in 2021, “It’s hard to say with any certainty within six years or so.

 In Japan, there is more concern about activities in the “gray zone” that do not lead to a full-scale invasion.

 These include cyber attacks, intrusion of Chinese maritime police into Taiwan’s territorial waters, and land grabs on islands other than the main island of Taiwan.

 These concerns are prompting a change in Japan’s policy toward China.

 Before the start of the new covid-19 pandemic, Japan and China were enjoying a relatively relaxed period.

 After the clashes in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited Xi as a state guest in April 2020 in an effort to stabilize Japan-China relations.

 These plans were scrapped by the pandemic. The new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, is trying to handle things cautiously, but he has taken hawkish actions as soon as he took office.

 First, he created a new post of Minister of Economy and Security, with a mandate to reduce dependence on China for the supply of critical goods.

 He also appointed Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister known as a China hawk, as assistant to the prime minister for human rights.

 The appointment is aimed at taking a tougher stance on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

 In addition, the economic stimulus package passed by the Diet in November included an unprecedented 774 billion yen (approx. 8.5 billion CDN)  in defense spending to accelerate the purchase of new missiles and military aircraft.

No mood of celebration for 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations

 In 2022, Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations after World War II.

 In a poll conducted in 2021, about 71% of Japanese said China was a “threat,” up from 63% in 2020.

 Similarly, the percentage of Chinese with a negative view of Japan jumped from 53% to 66%.

 At the end of December, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and China’s military agreed to improve communication channels between them. This is welcome, but it also suggests how worrisome the tensions between the two countries have become.

 Although Prime Minister Kishida has been negative about Xi’s visit to Japan, he has yet to formally withdraw his invitation as a state guest.

 He has also decided not to send any ministers to the Beijing Winter Olympics to be held in February, but only a small number of sports officials.

 Japan will not call this a “diplomatic boycott,” as the US and its allies do. But no Chinese person would mistake the small delegation for the Tang Dynasty envoys of the past.

 The long history between Japan and China is likely to enter a stormy phase in the future.

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