China’s image among Japanese is plumbing new lows but the urges of pragmatism point toward a brighter bilateral future
SEOUL – The 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Japan diplomatic relations did not cross Haruko Satoh’s radar screen.
Granted, such occasions are hardly at the top of everyone’s viewing agenda. But Satoh might have been expected to tune in: She is a professor of international relations at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, where she focuses on Japan’s regional relations.
“I don’t follow everything but it was pretty low-key,” she told Asia Times. “There is nothing tangible going on at the moment so it would have been really fake if they had said things had never been better.”
On the day of the September 29 anniversary, Japan was still transfixed with the aftermath of the controversial state funeral of murdered ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe. Yet, the “low-key” celebrations speak to the far-from-ideal state of relations between Asia’s number one and number two economies.
While China has been historically a cultural wellspring for Japan – passing on systems of governance, writing, religion, literature and medicine over the centuries – their history as neighbors has often been heated and violent. That was most notably the case during the 20th century, mankind’s bloodiest.
The two nations emerged from the Pacific War on opposite sides of the political-ideological spectrum, but, after establishing diplomatic relations in 1972 – setting a benchmark for China-US ties seven years later – there has been considerable amity. This has been notable in both people-to-people and business ties.
On the latter metric, China has used Japan as a model for its own development while Japan has historically been a leading investor. In recent years, China has overtaken the US as Japan’s leading trade partner.
“I think there was a long honeymoon period, through to well into the 1990s,” Dan Sneider, who lectures on international politics and East Asia at Stanford University, told Asia Times.
However, new chills crept into the relationship when China’s military began probing forward beyond its own shores.
“The downturn really begins in 2004 with the first incident in the [disputed] Senkakus, but the big shift comes in 2009-10 when we see the build-up of the Chinese military,” Sneider said.
Further fuel is now being poured onto the fire by great-power rivalry: As Chinese power waxes and American power wanes, both are charting an ideological collision course that is putting Japan in the uncomfortable middle.
Due to Japan’s status as America’s leading regional ally, there is fertile ground for conflict. Japan’s sometimes forgetful attitude toward its 20th-century history of aggression is an incendiary variable, and in recent years both publics’ dislike of each other has risen dramatically according to certain opinion polls.
Heated regional and territorial disputes have thus far been managed without armed conflict, despite agitation by hawks on all sides. Now, though, Taiwan tensions have been thrust into ever-sharper “Could it happen here?” relief by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
All of this, in addition to the woeful current image of Chinese among Japanese – where some 90% hold anti-China views, according to a 2021 poll – is raising concerns that the “hot economics, cold politics” paradigm of the recent past could break down on both fronts.
Yet, in defiance of the various multilateral complexities and tensions simmering in and around the bilateral relationship, analysts are cautiously optimistic. Several argue that a combination of economic realities, geographical proximity and political pragmatism is likely to cause relations to improve rather than implode.
Messages from Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping were read out at the 50th-anniversary event in Tokyo hosted by the Japanese big business lobby group, the Keidanren.
Kishida was diplomatically vague, if not vapid, in his read message, saying bilateral relations offer “various possibilities” but that the two sides face “many challenges and issues.”
The chairman of Keidanren – perhaps the stakeholder with the biggest interest in upgrading the bilateral partnership – was hardly more upbeat.
While making clear that China is one of Japan’s most important partners, Masakazu Tokura noted, “The flow of people between Japan and China has stalled against a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and international affairs have been getting more complex and opaque.”
From the supply chain ructions caused by America’s drive to decouple from China to rising regional security tensions, that is no understatement. Tokura suggested a solution to clear the air: “Proactive high-level exchanges, including those between leaders of the two nations, are needed.”
That’s not likely happening anytime soon. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Foreign Affairs, the last high-profile meets were held in 2019 when Chinese President Xi visited Japan and Japan’s then-prime minister Abe reciprocally visited China.
At present, it is unclear if or when relations will be reset. Much hangs on the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which starts on October 16. Besieged by the negative impact of Covid lockdowns, nationwide real-estate woes and the slowest growing economy in 30 years, Xi is nonetheless expected to win a third term as national leader.
For this reason, Satoh – who says she is “positive” on the future of bilateral relations – is holding fire. “I am reluctant to say anything until the party congress is over,” she said. “As there is nothing we can do, it’s ‘wait and see.’”
Covid has much to do with the lack of bilateral pow-wows. But amid the pandemic, the shift from Trump to Biden at the White House has seen a surprising level of anti-China policy continuity in Washington and offered no relief to those in the region hoping for better cross-Pacific vibes.
With Tokyo reliant on Washington for its security, US diplomatic and security maneuvers inevitably impact Japan. A common complaint among mainland opinion leaders, such as those cited by Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times, is that “Japan is taking the US side… against China’s core interests in the region.”
Obviously, it takes two to tango. China’s expanding footprint in the East China Sea, rising assertiveness in the South China Sea and provocations in the Taiwan Strait that recently landed a missile in Japanese waters, have all impacted Tokyo’s public psychology.
A 2021 survey by Nippon.com found that a vast majority of Japanese – some 90% – hold a negative view of China while less than 10% have a positive impression.
The reasons for this negativity, the poll found, were territorial incursions; Chinese actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere; discomfort with Beijing’s one-party rule; and the country’s ongoing expansion of its military capabilities. The survey also found that Chinese increasingly hold negative views of Japanese, though to a lesser extent.
Yet there is cause for bilateral hope, including the resumption of people-to-people contacts via outbound tourism. While one of the two players, China, remains a tourism no-go zone due to Beijing’s persistent “Zero Covid” policies, the other, Japan, just announced the long-awaited reopening of its borders to tourists.
In 2019, before the pandemic, Japan welcomed nearly 10 million visitors from the mainland – the highest number among all foreign visitors, accounting for some 30% of total arrivals. The weak yen could feasibly release a flood of new Chinese visitors – assuming the nation’s domestic Covid restrictions are soon lifted.
Security versus economics
By any measure, Japan is tightly bound to its alliance with the US. In that sense, the 55,000 US GIs in Japan, most notably those based on Okinawa, which sits at the north end of a strategic island chain that creeps south toward Taiwan, are a deliberate thorn in China’s side.
But the Japanese are not locked into an anti-China mindset exclusively because of their security alliance with Washington; they have security beefs of their own with Beijing. One is the status of the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyus and claims as its own.
Indeed, on 28 September, one day before the bilateral anniversary, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered waters off of the islands. Japan’s Coast Guard called it the 27th intrusion this year and “lodged a stern protest with Beijing,” according to Japanese reports.
While that situation remains tense, it is not likely kinetic. More worrying for Japan was the new precedent set in August when five Chinese missiles splashed in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which were test-fired in military drills Beijing initiated in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan.
Though Japan’s EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the country’s shores, rising and falling Taiwan Strait tensions and related stances in Washington that irk China are a chronic headache for Tokyo.
A number of high-profile Japanese political voices are now agitating for a national stance on the potential defense of Taiwan against any future Chinese assault or invasion. Among them are the late political heavyweight Abe and former prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso, another high-visibility figure on the Diet’s right.
Kishida’s administration has so far managed to fudge the issue by declining to outline a clear wartime policy.
The issue is not purely political. Many Japanese feel an emotive kinship with Taiwan – the one territory that, following Tokyo’s bloody rampage across Asia in the first half of the 20th century, retained largely positive memories of Japan’s occupation. Absent an actual shooting war, Taiwan is unlikely to break Beijing-Tokyo relations on its own.
“Japanese were figuring out how to manage relations with Taiwan and China for a long time,” Sneider said. “What has changed is more of a shift in Japanese security policy that allows them to talk about issues they did not talk about before.”
Since Abe, Japan has – with no particular domestic pushback – expanded its military’s role via a constitutional reinterpretation and is currently investing in multiple air and naval assets including US-made F-35 stealth fighters.
A new and incendiary issue is China’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war, even though that support has been far more diplomatic than material and has fallen far short of what many had anticipated earlier after the conflict erupted in late February.
On this, Satoh urges the US to clarify its messaging. “If the US gets their rhetoric right, doing a little more differentiating between China and Russia, that will make a huge difference,” she suggested.
Despite chasms over governance, public perceptions and security, China-Japan trade is on a roll. In 2021, China remained Japan’s biggest trade partner with a total value of US$371.1 billion – a historical high, according to China Customs authorities. Japan-US trade in the same year was much lower at $110 billion, according to official US trade data.
China and Japan – the world’s second and third largest economies – are tied together by both geographical proximity and supply chains across multiple sectors.
Though it remains too early to judge its long-term impact, the vague-but-vast free trade area that is the Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership (RCEP), which took effect in January this year, should bind their economies even more closely together.
And as China’s middle class continues to expand, Japan’s investment stance in the country is shifting.
“Look at Japanese FDI in China, which was increasing fairly recently, driven by big Japanese companies, like auto companies, building new equipment in China to sell to the domestic market,” said Sneider. “They are not using China as an export platform as before.”
If the US continues to pressure regional allies like Japan not to export dual-use technologies that contain US components or intellectual property to China, Japanese firms could feasibly create a secondary supply chain using only domestic technologies.
Such a secondary supply chain would “make things in China, by Chinese, for Chinese, with Japanese technologies,” Stephen Nagy, an associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo told Japan’s Kyodo News.
The vast potential of the China market – epitomized by the business center of Shanghai shown here – is central to the China-Japan relationship. Photo: Facebook / Shanghai Electric
But big-picture political differences are a reality, with a widely discussed “Thucydides Trap” – in the form of a waxing China and a waning America – hovering over the region’s horizon. Yet Northeast Asia’s democracies have proven far less vocal in their criticism of China than the more distant and strident West.
“As China has become more authoritarian, it makes Japan and South Korea more worried,” Satoh admitted. “But I think American and liberal values are ‘pushing’ China in that direction; I don’t think America and the West have ‘pull,’ anymore.”
In the Asian milieu, high-volume invective may not have its intended effect.
“The rhetoric that they use to criticize China is not what we want to hear,” Satoh said, noting that constantly harping on values and human rights can be counter-productive. “We are finding ourselves agreeing with the West but not using the same rhetoric to criticize China.”
A key, core and absolutely central factor is that the region’s core driver remains the Chinese economy, even in its now flagging state.
That vast market potential divides the world’s largest population between the aspirational benchmark of ultra-developed coastal regions and the promise of an undeveloped interior. And as Beijing inches open its capital markets, as its industry ascends the value ladder and as its vast, modern infrastructure pays great economic-efficiency dividends, the pickings are likely only to get richer.
“If you talk to Japanese business people, they are more worried about a downturn of the Chinese economy than the number of Chinese ships entering the waters around the Senkakus,” Sneider said. “That is a much more serious threat to Japan and that is why a lot of Japanese are watching the Keidanren and others like it as indicators.”
For this reason, Sneider, like Satoh, expects a bilateral upturn sooner rather than later. Recent history, Sneider says, provides a guide.
“It is only in the last 10-15 years that relations have taken a turn into a phase of competition and conflict,” he said. “But that was not the end of engagement.”
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