Japan and China: 'Intimate Rivals'
An anti-China protest in Japan, Sept. 2010.
Image Credit: Flickr/ Jacob Ehnmark

Japan and China: 'Intimate Rivals'


In her latest book – Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China – Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, examines the complex relationship between Japan and China. Geographically close, and tied by history, the two nations are inextricably linked. Japan, more than any nation, has felt China’s growth–as an economic and military power. As time goes on, Japanese citizens worry more and more about China but, Smith notes that while certain issues evoke a popular nationalism – such as Yasukuni shrine and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – voters have not rewarded the better-known Japanese nationalists at the ballot box.

The Diplomat talked to Smith recently about her book, how Japan views China’s rise, what influences East Asia’s post-WWII leaders, and the relationship between domestic politics and international relationships.

Intimate RivalsThe Diplomat: Can you speak more about what makes the Japanese people’s experience with China’s “change” unique compared to the experience of citizens of other countries, such as the Koreas, India, Pakistan, or any country that borders China?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Sheila Smith: I am not sure the Japanese experience is completely unique, but China’s transformation has been keenly felt by Japan largely because of the economic interdependence between the two and because of their history of war in the 20th century. Rebuilding their diplomatic relationship in the postwar period only began in 1978 and it coincided with the Chinese decision to introduce market reforms. Thus, diplomatic reconciliation became tied to an expansion of economic ties between the two countries. Japan became China’s largest aid donor, and its economic assistance was organized to support Beijing’s five-year plans. As China’s economy grew, China was less dependent on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and instead Japanese businesses took the lead in their economic relationship.

Geography here is also important. Japan’s border with China is a maritime border, and thus their interactions have been over the East China Sea. For much of these decades since normalization, the two governments have managed those interactions quite well. It is only recently, over the past decade, that activists and fishermen began to play a larger role across their maritime boundaries. And of course, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was concluded in 1982 and took effect in 1994, also added a new dimension to their management of this maritime boundary. With less than 400 nautical miles between them, they cannot extend their EEZs fully to 200 nm.  Rather, they must negotiate a demarcation for the East China Sea.  But Beijing and Tokyo have not agreed on where this line should be, and thus this maritime boundary has become more contested — not less contested — since the two countries ratified UNCLOS in the mid-1990s.

How responsive is the Japanese elite and public’s perception of China to changes in Chinese rhetoric and behavior?  What sorts of statements or events are likely to have the greatest impact on Japanese perceptions? Or are Japanese perceptions of China relatively static?

Polling data reveals a straight, 45-degree line of increasing Japanese worry about China since the early 2000s. One of the reasons I wrote my book was because of this growing popular skepticism about Beijing in Japan, and the seemingly increasing number of problems between Japan and China that the two governments were unable to solve. War memory — and the controversial prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine — looked like the most troubling issue, but by mid-decade maritime boundary differences and then scandals involving food imports from China raised sensitivities in Japan. Toward the end of the decade, of course, the territorial differences over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands for the Chinese) had erupted into a major diplomatic confrontation in 2010 over the provocative behavior of a Chinese fishing trawler. Tensions escalated dramatically again in 2012, after the Japanese government purchased the islands, and now include the danger of involving the two nations’ militaries.

Thus, popular sensitivities have grown, as these problems seemed to continue and even to escalate into overt military tensions between the two countries. Reducing these sensitivities, and reassuring the Japanese public that China and Japan can again find common ground and solve problems together will take some investment by political leaders in both countries.  Leaders in China, and a demonstrated track record of success in cooperating to reduce tensions in the East China Sea would be an important first step. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began cautiously to discuss risk reduction in the East China Sea when they met in November 2014.

As a new generation of leaders comes to power across East Asia — a generation which did not live through WWII during their defining years — what is the most formative experience that these leaders would have had with each other’s countries? And how would these formative experiences shape their views of each other and what the international order in East Asia should look like?

Those who are leaders today in East Asia had grandparents with experience in the war and parents who were involved in the immediate postwar effort to recover from the devastation of that war. In Northeast Asia, Abe, Xi, and Park are all children of the generation that rebuilt their nations. They have grown up with their parents’ experiences quite fresh in their minds, and they have come of age in times when their countries were becoming economically successful. Prime Minister Abe’s Japan was the emergent “economic superpower” that swept the globe. President Xi watched his nation embrace market reforms, reforms that lifted millions out of poverty. President Park is the first woman to lead South Korea, indeed to lead in Northeast Asia, a conservative who drew cross-party support in a democratizing nation determined to demonstrate its ability to contest economic, social and political agenda.

All three leaders in Northeast Asia today articulate a more assertive national identity. They have all watched their countries succeed economically, and all now want to address what this means for their nation’s identities. Abe wants a new, positive vision for younger Japanese where they no longer need to apologize for Japan’s 20th century mistakes, but can be proud of their postwar accomplishments. Xi wants to build “China’s Dream,” restoring the grandeur before the hundred years of humiliation and ensuring a better quality of life for his people. Park wants to unify the Korean peninsula, advocating a more positive vision different from the prospect of imminent war and collapse that has dogged South Koreas for generations.

Yet all of these hopes for the future continue to be inextricably linked to each nations’ views of the past — and thus of each other. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and commemorations abound. The question is will the leaders of Northeast Asia continue to look back in time to find the foundations of their nations’ identity, or will they be able to incorporate that history of imperialism and war into a narrative of accomplishment and recovery and shared commitment to regional peace and prosperity.

In Japanese policymakers’ discussion of their concerns about China, specifically regarding the issue of military reform and island defense, how much interest is there in cooperating with third party states other than the U.S., such as India, Australia, and South Korea? Do Japanese policymakers mostly focus on internal balancing for solutions, or do they also consider external balancing as a viable option?

Tokyo’s foreign policy planners have pursued both internal and external means for offsetting the impact of a rising China. When it comes to internal balancing through the acquisition of military power, the Japanese public remains committed to the constraints of their postwar Constitution. But the Abe Cabinet has pushed the limits as no Japanese leadership has before. Perhaps even more important than whether or not Japan can enhance the military as an instrument of balancing against China is the effort to jumpstart the Japanese economy. Here clearly the Japanese government is trying to up their ability to compete globally. Finally, the Abe Cabinet has lifted constraints on defense technology transfer. Allowing Japanese companies to begin to build economies of scale in production of weapons systems, and allowing them to pursue foreign military sales is an initiative that potentially could enhance both economic and military capabilities.

Diversifying partnerships is perhaps the most obvious outcome of Japan’s response to China. New partnerships with Australia and India suggest a maritime dimension in Tokyo’s priorities. Security cooperation seems to have progressed furthest with Canberra, but there is great hope for strategic cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi.  South Korea, unfortunately, does not offer any strategic benefit for Prime Minister Abe given their diplomatic estrangement. Indeed, the strategic costs of this inability to engage diplomatically are potentially high, although trilateral cooperation between Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul has managed to contain some of these costs.

One of the most important ways Tokyo is seeking to expand its regional economic influence is through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  TPP is both a lever for domestic structural reform and an important vehicle for setting a high bar for regional economic transactions. Its success will be an important breakthrough for both Washington and Tokyo in terms of their trade and investment, but it will also offer another option for Asian nations to expand their economic interactions with each other.

Speaking about your book, you describe how you were surprised at the disconnect between the rhetoric coming from Japan’s right and their advocacy for policy change. What are your thoughts on how well foreign, and especially U.S. media covers the rhetoric versus policy consequences of Japan’s vocal right?

Japan’s right has always been a conspicuous part of postwar politics, but today some of the ideas that were quite marginal have become far more mainstream. In my book, I describe this as issue of nationalism. In other words, certain issues today evoke a popular nationalism — Yasukuni and the Senkakus — where a few decades ago, most Japanese would not have been very interested. Conservative politicians who wanted to legitimize the shrine have described China’s criticism of the shrine over the years as an unwelcome intrusion into domestic politics. The Japanese public largely ignored the island dispute until a Chinese fishing trawler captain rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships, giving nationalist politicians a platform from which to criticize their government for not defending Japanese territory more effectively. Both of these issues are symbolic, and they are drawing in younger Japanese who see the opportunity to stand up for Japan in the face of a rising and critical China.

Yet across the variety of policy issues that the Japanese and Chinese governments must consider, there is virtually no sign of anti-Chinese nationalism.  Instead there are domestic interests seeking greater Japanese government protection, and the most obvious of these in m study were Japanese consumers who had long struggled to gain government acceptance of the legitimacy of their demands.

Global media of course see this new effort to draw popular support to the nationalist cause as part of a wider current in Japan. Yet electoral politics don’t seem to reward some of the better-known Japanese nationalists, such as the former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro and the former Air Self Defense Force general Tamogami Toshio. Their voices may be loud and their actions draw considerable media attention, but in recent elections, Japanese voters have not rewarded their nationalist agenda. Nonetheless, it is clear that more and more Japanese worry about their future, one of the sources of their concern is clearly the increasingly large shadow of a more powerful China.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief