Chinese Perspectives on the Abe-Obama Summit

Chinese Perspectives on the Abe-Obama Summit


Chinese commentary on the summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama has predictably focused on the singular achievement of Abe’s US visit – the unveiling of the revised “Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation”  – as well as Abe’s “historical revisionism,” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In highlighting these themes, the commentary has emphasized the degree to which U.S. and Japanese interests complement each other, particularly on trade and security policy.

The Chinese press has remarked on how Japanese and U.S. strategic ambitions coincide in the new defense guidelines. In their view, Abe wants to free Japan’s military from its postwar shackles and strengthen U.S. commitments to Japanese security by making a greater contribution to the U.S.-Japan alliance, at the same time as reinforcing the bilateral security relationship as a bulwark against the rise of Chinese power in the Asia Pacific. The United States, on the other hand, wants to retain its regional dominance but at a lower cost and so is pleased to see Japan free itself from restrictions on the dispatch of its military overseas.

Chinese commentators cite various Japanese sources that remark on how the new guidelines are all about the U.S. shifting more of the security load on to Japan in the region. In their view, this is designed to fill the gap in America’s “declining power,” a notion often repeated in Chinese analysis of the U.S.-China power balance.

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Chinese observers also argue that Japan is opportunistically bandwagoning on America’s rebalancing strategy while Obama is “leaning towards and indulging Japan by allowing it to exercise greater influence, as part of his attempt to gain stronger support for the rebalancing policy.” These comments suggest that United States can now more confidently look to Japan as a partner in its balancing strategy against China in the Asia Pacific.

On historical issues, writers in the Chinese press point out how the United States is prepared to look the other way on Abe’s “war revisionism” given Japan’s expanded contribution to the alliance. Xiaojun Liu writes in Xinhua that Obama was “drunk” with Abe’s “great gift” of reinforcing Japan-U.S. defense cooperation and was prepared to tolerate him on historical issues, thus abandoning the moral baseline. Other Xinhua reports deliver the customary criticism of Abe’s failure sufficiently to apologize for Japan’s history of colonization and invasion, and the wartime sex slave issue. They condemn Abe’s “great power chauvinistic ambitions,” drawing on terminology straight out of the old Soviet communist lexicon, which China also used to describe how the Soviet government behaved in the 1950s. It refers to the unequal relationship between a powerful nation and less powerful ones – when one nation bullies another, interferes with other nation’s internal affairs, and disregards the interests of the people of other countries because it is more powerful and therefore feels superior – as defined by Gucheng Li in his Glossary of Political Terms of the People’s Republic of China published in 1995. The current relevance of this concept to describe China-Japan relations is simply assumed.

As for the U.S.-Japan alliance itself, the Chinese Foreign Ministry uses the opportunity of the Abe-Obama summit to reiterate its standard argument about how the alliance is a Cold War relic and now out of date. Instead, both the United States and Japan should ensure that the alliance does not damage any third party’s interests (including China’s) and undermine Asia-Pacific stability. This comment disregards the eminent flexibility and contemporary relevance of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which refers to the maintenance not only of Japanese security but also “international peace and security in the Far East.”

Special criticism is reserved for Obama’s remarks about maritime territorial disputes in the region. Writing in Fenghuang Zixun, Tao Wang reports Obama’s reiteration of the U.S. government policy of including all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, under Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty. This prompted another response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, urging the United States not to take sides on issues on territorial sovereignty and to stop sending the wrong signals.

To Obama’s statement that the United States and Japan “share a concern” about Chinese activities in the South China Sea given their belief in the freedom of navigation, respect for international law and peaceful resolution of disputes, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs predictably offers a firm rebuttal. It denies the United States and Japan any right to an interest in the issue, given that they are not directly involved and demands that they “adopt an objective and fair attitude and stop making any comments or taking any actions that might complicate the dispute and harm regional peace and stability.” Such a denial, however, is a direct challenge to the revised guidelines’ focus on maritime security and protecting freedom of navigation without geographical restriction.

Also of interest to Chinese commentators was Abe’s clear and unequivocal linkage of trade and security in his speech to Congress about the need for the United States and Japan to “take the lead in building a market that is fair, dynamic, sustainable and free from the arbitrary intentions of any nation…we can spread our shared values around the world and have them take root: the rule of law, democracy, and freedom. That is exactly what the TPP is all about.” While exiled Chinese democratic activist, Jianli Yang, argues, “The fact that the United States and Japan share values and interests is the foundation of the unwavering relationship between the two countries,” Wei Zhang in Xinhua observes, “Abe considers the TPP as offering both economic and strategic benefits.” Washington correspondent for Hong Kong’s Zhontian News goes on to warn that “the reinforcement of the Japan-U.S. alliance in terms of economy and security will have a direct impact on China.”

Tao Wang, writing in Fenghuang Zixun, elaborates the argument that “Since the United States officially proposed the plan of expanding the TPP in 2009, it has been constantly attempting to use the TPP to intervene comprehensively in the integration of the East Asian region, stop Asia from forming a unified trade group, rebuild and lead the economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, and undermine the influence that countries such as China and Japan exercise in the region.” He adds that “the two countries see the TPP as a ‘political weapon’ that they want to use to contain China,” although the TPP ‘is a trade agreement, not a pseudo-geopolitical agreement – and Washington’s plan to check China using the TPP has fallen through because of China’s establishment of the AIIB.

However, Kaori Fukushima, a Japanese journalist and China expert who conducted a close examination of how Abe’s speech to the U.S. Congress was received in China, writes that “China has already abandoned the Deng Xiaoping-style, low-profile strategy and does not hide its ambition to establish a Chinese order that counters the American order.” She adds that if there were one essential message that Abe wanted to impart to the American people and China during the summit, it was that, together with the United States, he intends to make concerted efforts to stop the establishment of a new Chinese order in Asia.

Aurelia George Mulgan is professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. Author of six books on Japanese politics (the latest “Ozawa Ichiro and Japanese Politics: Old Versus New,” Nissan/Routledge 2014).

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