The Big Ideas

'The Surprising Strength of Chinese-Japanese Ties'

Foreign Affairs

Tobias Harris | Center for American Progress
'The Surprising Strength of Chinese-Japanese Ties'
'The Surprising Strength of Chinese-Japanese Ties'
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May 4, 2021
BIG IDEA | At their summit in April, ‘after years of veiled messaging Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga U.S. President Joe Biden, ‘formally acknowledged that they are working together to deter China’s military power in Asia and compete with China economically.’
‘It would be premature, however, to imagine that Washington has succeeded in drawing Tokyo into firm opposition to Beijing.’
‘Japan may be increasingly alarmed by China’s behavior and willing to criticize the actions of Chinese leaders, but it knows that a fundamental break with China is very unlikely.’

After summit in April between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden, many thought that Japan had finally and fully thrown itself in with the U.S.’ effort to counter China.

  • China certainly saw it that way and in essay after in the official media warned Japan that it would pay a price for joining the U.S. in trying to contain China.
  • Turns out that the outcome is more nuanced.

‘After years of veiled messaging Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden, formally acknowledged that they are working together to deter China’s military power in Asia and compete with China economically.’

  • In ‘their joint statement, they explicitly identified China as the major challenge facing the alliance, enumerating “concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order.” ’

‘The joint statement with the United States is only the latest sign that Suga, who succeeded Abe as prime minister last September, will not revert to his predecessor’s warm diplomacy with China.’

  • ‘Suga has expanded a program introduced last year to subsidize Japanese companies that want to shift production out of China.’
  • ‘He has embraced the Quad—the informal grouping of democracies that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—by hosting a meeting of its foreign ministers in October and pushing for a virtual summit that was held in March.’
  • ‘His cabinet ministers have openly protested China’s new coast guard law, which clarifies when the Chinese coast guard can use force and could allow Beijing to strengthen its claims to disputed islands.’
  • ‘More recently,S. and Japanese defense officials have affirmed that the allies would cooperate in the event of a conflict between China and Taiwan.’

‘The Japanese public, too, has been especially skeptical of China since Beijing began asserting its claims to the disputed Senkaku (known in China as the Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea.’

  • ‘According to an annual poll, around 90 percent of the Japanese people have negative attitudes toward China – a figure that has remained steady since reaching a high of 93 percent in 2014.’

‘It would be premature, however, to imagine that Washington has succeeded in drawing Tokyo into firm opposition to Beijing.’

  • ‘Japan may be increasingly alarmed by China’s behavior and willing to criticize the actions of Chinese leaders, but it knows that a fundamental break with China is very unlikely.’

‘Rather, Japan remains committed to a “mutually beneficial” strategic relationship with China.’

  • ‘Despite Suga’s hawkish posturing in the White House, Japan’s geography, economics, and domestic politics will militate against its enlisting in a U.S.-led cold war against China.’

Powerful political and economic actors have supported the growing ties with China. Three entities have formed a kind of China lobby in Japan that has worked to insulate the bilateral relationship from political opposition.’

  • ‘The business community, which continues to treat China as an indispensable market.’
  • ‘The mercantilist wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party,’
  • ‘Bureaucrats in important ministries who urge cooperation and resist confrontation with China.

‘Perhaps most important, the Japanese people continue to believe that the relationship with China is important and worth maintaining.’

  • ‘Despite nearly 90 percent of Japanese reporting negative attitudes about China, more than two-thirds of Japanese see economic cooperation with China as important for their country’s future.’
  • ‘Other polls find little support for greater defense spending or for a more expansive role for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.’

‘In sum, Japanese business leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians will continue to keep the channels of communication with Beijing open in the belief that, as Suga tweeted after the summit, a stable relationship with China “is important not just for Japan and China, but for the peace and prosperity of the region and the international community.” ’

‘That said, ‘Japan’s China policy is still up for grabs.’

  • ‘Should China continue to behave aggressively in the region, its actions may one day result in a fundamental rupture with Japan.’
  • ‘But that day has not yet come.’

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