A Game of Go: China and Japan Seek Advantages in East Asia
Image Credit: Flickr/ Sean Welton

A Game of Go: China and Japan Seek Advantages in East Asia


In Chinese ancient military general and strategist Sun Tzu’s classical military treatise The Art of War, “shih” means the strategic configuration of power. Winning by “shih” may help to bring about a final triumph even without engaging in actual fighting. Such idea may provide us with an alternative perspective to examine the current Sino-Japanese “Cold War.”

So far, signs of reconciliations between Beijing and Tokyo are still nowhere to be seen. Instead, both seem to be winding up national springs to get prepared for a possible conflict. Abe, shortly after being rejected and denounced by China for his confrontational remarks made at the World Economic Forum, repeated his ambitious goal of reviewing Japan’s right of collective self-defense in his January 24 policy speech to the National Diet. China, geared up to check Abe, has never stopped its strategic preparations. The establishment of China’s Council of State Security may suggest that, at the top level, China is taking full advantage of the current circumstance to “stretch its arms” to tackle various traditional and nontraditional challenges, which of course includes the enduring deep-rooted disputes with Japan.

This is only a tiny segment of the current wrangling between Beijing and Tokyo. If we look at East Asia’s political map as a Go game board, China and Japan are rival players running into a deadlock, both holding their strategically important game pieces. The following are some of the most important ones, which may help to understand and compare each country’s strategic configuration of power.

China’s Three Main Game Pieces

New type of great power relations with the U.S.: The structural distrust between China and the U.S. more or less undermines a quick solution for Sino-Japanese disputes, and the U.S. never hesitates to claim Japan as a truly important ally. However, building a new type of great power relations has been a point of consensus between Beijing and Washington. Such confirmations have been made by high-ranking officials from both sides on several occasions, regardless of China-U.S. distrust and the discomfort brought by the Sino-Japanese standoff. Beijing may have reasons to believe that the importance of China-U.S. relations could help it to gain a little more strategic weight, but Beijing must play the game more carefully and skillfully.

Ever-growing economic power: China’s GDP in 2013, according to Asahi Shimbun [Chinese], was almost twice that of Japan, even though China just passed Japan to became world’s second largest economy in 2010. With this ever-growing economic power, which is expected to continue expanding in the coming years, China is modernizing its military and especially its air force and naval fleets. Its civilian marine surveillance fleet is also getting bigger and heavier as China aims to build a 10,000 ton marine surveillance ship – the world’s largest such vessel.

Historical empathy from other states: During the recent public opinion offensive in world media, Chinese diplomats strongly emphasized the importance of the global order built after World War II. So far, this public opinion offensive seems to be a relative success, particularly in Europe, where people have very vigilant attitudes towards war crimes. At the Davos World Economic Forum, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi tried to reach to his audience by noting that to show respect to and to mourn Nazi war criminals in Europe would definitely be regarded as an inappropriate or probably even illegal deed.

Japan’s Three Main Game Pieces

Japan-U.S. military alliance: Specifically, Article 5 of Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which may apply to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, has been a pain in the neck for Chinese decision-makers. However, it is still not crystal clear how deeply the U.S. would be willing to be dragged into a possible Sino-Japanese conflict. Furthermore, it is clear that the U.S. does not want Japan to make further disruptions to its East Asian policy as a whole. Hence Washington expressed “disappointment” after Abe visited the war shrine and sought to get assurances that Abe wouldn’t repeat the visit.

“Three Arrows” of Abenomics: The Japanese economy has been struggling since the early 1990s, at the same time as China has truly emerged as an economic great power. Aiming for a revival, Abenomics promised reform measures in the banking system, government budget, and private investment. However, Satyajit Das, the author of Traders, Guns & Money, claimed in September 2013 that “Abe’s ‘three arrows’ will fall short of the target once again,” since “Abenomics really is more religion than reality.” Entering 2014, Japan’s economy expanded only by 1.1% and actually looks weaker.

Abe’s “Proactive Pacifism:” Abe’s determination to step away from Japan’s post-war pacifism, which he believes is too excessive, will be a very complex issue. China’s military buildup might give Japan a chance to find a rivalry that will help Abe sell national normalization, which could help to maintain the regional balance as U.S. influence in the region is relatively declining. However, the U.S. may also have reasons to worry about how far Japan wants to go. Abe claims he embraces “pacifism,” but he definitely “seeks more muscle,” as a recent New York Times headline put it. What does Abe’s “proactive pacifism” preciously mean to Asian neighbors that suffered from Japanese imperialism during the wars, such as China and South Korea? Japan may still have a lot to explain.

Is China Winning the Game by “Shih”?

U.S.-China relations and U.S.-Japan relations are two of the most important bilateral relations in contemporary world politics for the U.S., particularly as it tries to rebalance to Asia. However, seeing China as a strategic competitor and insisting on Japan’s role as an important ally does not necessarily make the U.S. overlook the possibility of building mutual trust with China and the importance of cooperating with China on many issues that have global and regional significance – the North Korea nuclear issue, for example. What’s more, should China’s economy continue to expand at a robust rate, the U.S. will sooner or later lose its position as the world’s largest economy. The dispute and rivalry between China and Japan, currently the world’s second and third largest economies, would become a game between Number 1 and Number 3.

Hence, so far, it might be appropriate to say that China is gaining a temporary upper hand. Japan, however, is acting a little more passively, for example only fighting back in the world media after Chinese diplomats had initiated a global-scale PR offensive. China’s “three game pieces” vs. those of Japan briefly explain how China strives to win over Japan through a more effective strategic configuration of power.

But this doesn’t mean that China will win the game for sure. The current Sino-Japanese standoff comes from the deep-rooted disputes between these two neighbors, which include very complex historical, territorial, economic, and political issues. The role of the U.S. inevitably has made the situation even more complicated. Therefore, a rivalry between China and Japan, is actually to a certain degree a trilateral game among China, Japan, and the U.S., and this game is still ongoing.

January 30, 2014 at 06:24

Why does the author measure economic strength as pure GDP output and GDP increase? It is true that China overtook Japan in that regard but the population of the former is times larger than the latter.
Moreover, China’s domestic political situation is containing, in my opinion, explosive social disparities which promise problems in the future.
Overall, I am not convinced by the three Chinese game pieces (especially the second one) – you cannot take only 3 aspects when the power relations in the region are much more complex than that.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
January 28, 2014 at 21:47

I agree with Kanes.

The world or at least some parts of it are beginning to know that China has a very big mouth.

Some senior leaders met clandestinely last autumn, discussed and came to the conclusion that first they would not wage war on Japan and that second the Japanese did not have the guts to take on them. A very sound conclusion that Sun Tzu would have admired.

It appears some Chinese elites have begun to whisper confidentially to their intimate Japanese friends that they have a hard time finding a way out of the island dispute.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
January 29, 2014 at 10:23

I may have been ambiguous and not clear. The Chinese want to wash their hands off the dispute with Japan but cannot find a face-saving rhetoric so far. My advice is for them to read Sun Tzu from first to last page.

China had been little interested in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands until oil fields were known (John Lee). Zhou Enlai said to the visiting chairman of a Japanese political party (Komei Party) in Bejing in July 1972 that Chinese historians started to claim the Isles since when it was discovered that billions of barrels of oil lay under the sea. He also said the same thing two months later to Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka who had come to meet him. Mr. Xi Jinping could find a passage in the Sun Tzu’s book, “We do not care for sour oil.”

January 30, 2014 at 03:17

Your comment is nothing but a crude Japanese propaganda that only 3 year old kids would believe .

Who do you think would believe you when you said:
“Zhou Enlai said to the visiting chairman of a Japanese
Political party (Komei Party) in Beijing in July, 1972 that Chinese historians started to claim the Isles since when it was discovered that billions of barrels of oil lay under the sea. He also said the same thing two months later to Japanese prime minister Tanaka who had come to meet him.”

Zhou Enlai, a highly capable Foreign Minister of China, most likely reminded the Japanese that the islands in question rightfully belonged to China and should be returned. On the other hand , Tanaka most probably did not agree. So they they agreed to disagree and decided to shelve the problem for the future generations to come out with a solution.

Sadly, the Japanese broke the tacid agreement by unilaterally nationalizing the islands causing tension between the two countries. The breaking of status quo by Japan is the immediate cause of the current problem that may cause huge conflagration down the road.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
January 30, 2014 at 19:19

Japan proposed to China in 1880 on the advice of Ulysses Grant, US president from 1869-77, that China take the Yaeyam Islands and the Miyako Islands. The former included in the Japanese proposal what we now call the Senkaku/Diaoyu Isles. China said no thank you. It did not make any protests, either.

January 28, 2014 at 17:47

to chinese governement, they are forced into corner where japan as a defeated nation which is trying to pull all the conditions in the ultimatum of 1945, japanese is ’formalising the nation’ ..but should not pull the conditions away… these are the condition saved japan from total distruction , without those conditions, japan may have to take more bombs neccesary to welcome the peace…

times is flying, but conditon of the ultimatum is not changed respectfully with all the souls fought hard for it, including all the young allied soldiers (american, canadians, australian…chinese) against Nazi japan.

japan can ‘normalising its nation’(I cannot see any importance of it but an excuse to recover some assets deprived by the defeat of Nazi japan in 1945).

Calvin CHUA
January 28, 2014 at 16:40

One of the lacking points is that even though China has a strong economic ties with ASEAN. Japan has a lot of goodwill there, as they are the pioneers to invest in ASEAN. ASEAN members have a level of mistrust against China.

January 29, 2014 at 21:06

how could China invest in other countries long ago when they are just a third world country . your comment is out of bound. it is not mistrust but interest and jealousy as some singaporea are doing.

January 28, 2014 at 11:32

I disagree on Japanese points of power except the first one (US involvement). Other strategic competencies of Japan include a very strong economy (despite the growth rate fluctuations), extremely strong manufacturing base, the democratic system of governance which self regulates national priorities, the ability to quickly recover from disasters and the very high population density. Although China is about 70 times the size of Japan, population of Japan is 10% of China. This high number of wealthy population is the greatest asset of Japan.

Most of these power competecies of China and Japan are not confrontational. So there is no real need for confrontation. China-Japan conflict is a hyped up issue which has no substance to it.

January 29, 2014 at 00:10

You are right. China is 70 times the size of Japan and its population 10 times bigger. It seems reasonable for China to build up its military to better protect its huge land mass and long coastline .

Over 10% of increase in military spending over the past years could only bring China’s military power on par with Japan. The question is why is Abe complaining so loudly about the Chinese military expenditure? And how did Japan build up its military to such a powerful stage when it is even now under its peace constitution?

Thomas Huynh
January 28, 2014 at 09:28

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, it also states that a general shouldn’t take action if there is no benefit. With all the posturing from China and Japan, what was gained and what will be gained?

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