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Intensifying China-US Rivalry Imperils the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’

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Intensifying China-US Rivalry Imperils the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’

Yoshida wanted to retain historical ties with China and obtain security guarantees from the U.S. That balance looks increasingly unlikely today.

Intensifying China-US Rivalry Imperils the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (center) meets with U.S. President John Kennedy (right) in the White House, Washington, D.C., May 3, 1962. (Also pictured is Japan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Asakai Koichiro.)

Credit: White House photo

As crises erupted in East Asia, and communism seemed to be on the offensive – evident from the victory of the Communist Party in the Chinese civil war and the North Korean invasion of South Korea – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (in office from 1948-1954) was laying the foundation of a strategy that would elevate his country from scorched earth to economic revitalization.

The strategy that he laid is often – and misleadingly – referred to as the Yoshida Doctrine. The term was not coined by Yoshida himself, but was retrospectively invented by Japanese scholars and pundits in the 1980s in order to explain the source of the Japanese economic miracle, which they attributed to Yoshida’s policies in the early 1950s.

The distinct features of the doctrine were a product of Yoshida’s limited choices rather than his willingness to set parameters. Firstly, he decided to rely upon the United States for Japanese defense by settling the Japan-U.S. security treaty in 1951, which would shield his country from the communist menace in the region. However, at the same time, outsourcing Japan’s defense to the U.S. was based on Yoshida’s resignation that his country would not be able to stomach a remilitarization only six years after a total war. The peace dividend that Japan gained as a result of its limited military power enabled the country to pursue the second feature of the doctrine – the prioritization of economic growth.

Yoshida himself assumed that the dependence on the United States was a temporary measure and thought that the Japanese public would eventually take the initiative in their own defense. In the end, this dynamic was maintained throughout the entirety of the Cold War, even up to this day. However, what is often overlooked in Yoshida’s foreign policymaking was the fact that while forging close ties with the United States, he was seeking to diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China, which he failed to do, but pursued diligently.

When Yoshida was pursuing a two-track strategy toward the U.S. and China, the timing could not have been worse. The Communist victory in China in 1949 detonated viral hysteria across the United States, launching a wave of political persecution where suspected communists were purged from the government – oftentimes wrongly – and any sort of rapprochement with mainland China was deemed inappropriate.

In 1951, with the red scare still unabated, and McCarthyism at its peak, Yoshida published a thesis in Foreign Affairs that could have been interpreted as a plea to recognize the PRC, which was destined to fall on deaf ears throughout Washington. In it, Yoshida opined, “Red or white, China remains our next-door neighbor. Geography and economic laws will, I believe, prevail in the long run over any ideological differences and artificial trade barriers.”

Yoshida was a seasoned diplomat who spent most of his diplomatic career in China. He was well aware of how dependent Japan had been, and would continue to be, on the Chinese market. Thus, in order to rebuild his country out of the devastation caused by World War II, he was groping for the best of both worlds by seeking to retain historical ties with China and obtain security guarantees from the U.S. – a synergy that would render Japan prosperous and protected.

In his memoir, Yoshida points out that Great Britain was allowed to recognize the People’s Republic of China while it was perceived to be hostile toward the U.S., and this understanding fed his calculation that Japan too might be granted a similar arrangement. However, Yoshida’s efforts to persuade U.S. policymakers went down the drain when the U.S. Senate hinted that it would refuse to ratify a peace treaty that would restore Japan’s independence.

Nevertheless, in the long run, as Yoshida had predicted, “economic laws” indeed overcame the “ideological differences.” In 1962, eight years after Yoshida’s departure from power, Japan settled a semi-governmental agreement with Beijing; trade relations were renormalized with the backing of both governments. The agreement turned out to be an economic success for Japan. During the 1960s the total amount of trade with China, based on the U.S. dollar, skyrocketed, growing 26-fold in the span of a decade. In turn, that booming trade further boosted Japan’s roaring economy.

Since Japan normalized trade relations and eventually diplomatically recognized the PRC in 1972, China has become a quintessential actor in Japan’s industrial economy. And despite the intensifying tensions between the United States and China, which have already seen a partial decoupling in some areas, Sino-Japan economic relations have never been stronger.

Japan’s history of prioritizing economic interests with China rather than security ties with the U.S. is a telling reminder for Washington that a situation where Japan would remain neutral during a Taiwan contingency – a scenario in which the U.S. would not be able to defend Taiwan – is not implausible. The Japanese government has privately engaged in war planning. It is moving toward a war footing in concert with the U.S. military, in order to prepare for a potential war against China. However, just two years ago Japan’s government denied the possibility of sending troops to defend Taiwan, and last year Tokyo was muted when China launched missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In that instance, it did not hold a National Security Council meeting, which usually takes place after North Korean missiles are similarly launched.

There seems to be a growing realization within Washington that Japan’s participation in a Taiwan Strait contingency – which is a must for the U.S. to successfully defend Taiwan if a Chinese invasion incurs – remains uncertain. The Wall Street Journal reported that despite year-long deliberations over war planning, Japan eschews any commitment to participate in a possible conflict, according to individuals familiar with the matter.

Today, Japan’s foreign policy is still constrained by Yoshida’s “invisible hand,” where Japan is continuing to extract benefits from both the U.S. and China – the former benefitting Japan’s security and the latter Japan’s economy. However, as tensions increase along the Cold War dividing line, which was drawn under Yoshida’s reign, the strategy that worked extremely favorably for Japan in the past seems to be unattainable in the present.

The conventional understanding may be that Japan would ultimately side with the United States. Nevertheless, if the U.S. remains a protectionist state and refuses to engage in free trade with Japan and the rest of the world, how will Japan compensate for the loss of the Chinese market? It may turn out that if squeezed between the U.S. and China, Japan would give priority to the latter. History shows that Japan has a precedent of tilting toward China against U.S. wishes. Why wouldn’t Japan do it again?