Sino-Japanese relations have long been characterized as a cyclical process alternating between pragmatic separation of economics and politics in bilateral relations and a deep freeze with articulated announcements signifying tensions on both sides.
The conventional wisdom in the recent past was that the accommodation of China’s rise by its neighbors and other major powers would allow China to be an integral part of international society, with the simultaneous recognition of Japan’s pacifist role in East Asia. The whole point of the concept was to keep China engaged in international affairs.
This narrative was most popular during the period when the Chinese worldview of the “Peaceful Rise of China” was in place. Since then, many geopolitical developments have taken place, including China’s intentions to play a larger role in world affairs according to its vision, the US pivot to East Asia, conservatives’ call for the normalization of Japan, etc.
Consequently, this conventional thinking has become increasingly difficult to actualize due to rising tensions from a host of factors including maritime disagreements, disputes over historical memories, competing geopolitical worldviews, and a function of other major powers’ roles in the region.
As the competitive instincts of major powers in the region continue to strengthen, particularly those of China and the US, other states around the two major powers have begun to practice hedging. In the past, hedging was quite standardized with many states in the East Asian region coveting US military partnerships, protection, or alliances, but maintaining an economic outreach to China.
This is increasingly difficult to sustain as maritime disputes and competitive tensions in the region begin to heat up. The US-Japan alliance has been greatly contributive to peace in the region, and has kept the sea lanes of communication open for others to trade for decades. The US security network is also extensive in the region with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and partners like Thailand and India.
Pessimistic and realist perspectives have recently come into being when examining Sino-Japanese relations. A number of factors have given rise to this, including the growing disproportionate strength of China compared to Japan, which has only recently started to rebound from decades-old economic maturity and mature growth. The different levels of economic maturity between the two countries have resulted in asymmetry in power and influence, both in terms of perceptions and reality.
However, even this is starting to change a little as Japan’s economy appears to have benefited from Abenomics to a certain extent, while China is still growing at a more sustainable rate (considered slow compared to the past, but still growing). It is unclear if this trend will persist. Added on to this is the emergence of the Trump administration in the US which has taken a tough stand on trade, both on China and Japan, but especially the former. It is unclear at this point of writing if a trade war will ensue, and how serious and extensive this so-called “war” will be.
Sino-Japanese relations were stuck in stasis until the November 2014 meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which started a thawing process. Bilateral relations have improved substantially with the two leaders meeting in Bandung and other occasions, but outstanding issues remain and will stay as long term obstacles to reconciliation.
It now depends on restraints on both side to prevent escalation and also to pull back from the brink whenever there is a danger of an incident. It is not an ideal situation but one that serves to mitigate further escalation. There are sincere talks to strengthen institutional arrangements instead of relying on laissez faire organic management of bilateral incidents, such as the talks over a maritime hotline to resolve accidents at sea between the two coastguards. There is vast room for improvements in confidence building measures (CBMs), dialogue, and institutionalization of conflict resolution mechanisms (CRMs).
There has also been a great deal of dependence on personal diplomacy with experienced and charismatic leaders who are China or Japan specialists mediating between the two countries to mitigate conflicts between them. Personal diplomacy is a useful feature of high-context Northeast Asian cultures and should continue to play its role.
However, relying on personal diplomacy is no longer enough, since both China and Japan are major powers and economies in East Asia, and their relationship and the impact of their policies on others in the region have grown tremendously. Their rivalries, fallouts, and conflicts have the capacity to affect other East Asian countries besides themselves. As leaders in the region, both leaderships have had the wisdom thus far to prevent clashes besides saber-rattling.
Sino-Japanese relations may depend on the effects of a Trump administration on East Asia and how it reaches an equilibrium between rhetoric and reality.
There are also bright sparks in bilateral relations. Chinese tourists, despite all the tensions, remain avid travelers to Japan and South Korea, inspiring the phrase “explosive buying” in Japan as a social and consumeristic phenomenon in the Japanese retail industry. The spending has helped to boost Japanese retail sales and contribute to the economy. All these developments may be considered when one looks at the context of people-to-people exchanges in bilateral relations. These are real incentives (tourism and mutually-beneficial economic exchanges) to prevent people-to-people perceptions of each other’s citizens in both countries from deteriorating further.
This is nothing new, since during the Koizumi administration era, even when relationship took a downturn after visits by Japanese leaders to a war memorial shrine, bilateral trade continued to be good. From Japan’s side, its society remain pacifist in outlook even during the era of a conservative government. In other words, there is much potential for other sectors to play their roles in mitigating the downward spiral in relations due to territorial issues or historical memories.
It is difficult to say if the current situation will be a “new normal” where the US, China, and Japan are adjusting to a new geopolitical reality, with the US under a Trump administration playing a robust role in regional affairs and strengthening its alliance with Japan while taking a transactional diplomatic position while doing so. It is also difficult to say if China, which has been trying to play large global and regional roles and promoting a multilateral multipolar worldview, will continue to do so as its economy matures.
Given that historical evidence shows Sino-Japanese relations to be cyclical, it is unlikely to assume that things will remain unchanged and there could once again be a cyclical turn in bilateral relations. This time around, it may depend on the effects of a Trump administration on East Asia and how it reaches an equilibrium between rhetoric and reality as the administration settles into power.
It is also unclear if China and Japan will bolster their security presence in the region. Some narratives see China playing a more robust role in staking its claims in the maritime region and others see Japan elevating from being a passive logistical support role for the US military to an actual proactive partner as the country domestically deliberates over constitutional changes and reforms.
The “new normal” will also be seen in areas where there is an acute need for cooperation, like the need to stop North Korea from weaponizing its nuclear program and threatening its neighbors. This is a very real prospect; it is so intimidating that South Korea has gone ahead with the US offer to situate the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system on its soil. The US, China, and Japan, all highly rational actors, have a decent record of being restrained and careful about managing conflicts. North Korea is not and it is in real danger of implosion, a situation none of the major actors in the region are interested to see.
Sometimes, the unexpected can pose real dangers to geopolitics. Currently, liberals, left wingers, some moderates, pro-free trade advocates, and anti-isolationists are worried about the populism pushback that has occurred with Brexit, the US presidential election, with echoing sentiments in Western Europe. Some are also worried about a generally hawkish sentiment that has enveloped an increasingly realist reading of world affairs.
But, at the same time, strong leaders bring about fresh perspectives that can be decisively put into practice. This is a time when President Trump, President Xi, and Prime Minister Abe have all displayed robust and strong leadership qualities that have a made a definite impact in the international circle. President Trump has articulated strongly his beliefs. Some have already started comparing him to the much-loved Ronald Reagan. President Xi is consolidating his strong hold on power and is emerging as a strongman in Chinese politics. Prime Minister Abe has become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in recent years and, if he stays on further, the country’s longest-serving prime minister ever.
This brings a real opportunity for the three strongmen to enforce their robust visions for the region and the world. It also provides an opening for them to use their strong positions to reach compromises and bring about lasting changes which their predecessors could not do. If this can be done, other smaller states can benefit from their compromises and prevent another bipolar Cold War situation from happening.
Furthermore, the world and the region confronting actual and impending job losses due to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation requires the wisdom of all three leaders to work together to create jobs and provide economic stability for the world.