• Considering the Shifting Roles in Japan – China Relations

Considering the Shifting Roles in Japan – China Relations

By Steve Tsang
July 26, 2022
I visited Tokyo and Sapporo in the second week of December 2019, shortly before the Covid Pandemic made travel like this impossible or impossibly difficult for a couple of years. As a specialist on China’s domestic politics as well as foreign and security policy, the meetings and frank exchanges I had with my Japanese host, politicians, scholars and think-tankers were highly valuable. Their knowledge of and insights on China’s politics, foreign and security policies are often inadequately recognized by and engaged with by scholars in the English-speaking world. Indeed, I found some of the discussions I had inspirational.
Even though my short visit took place before China unleashed the ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats in a big way, following the negative responses in many parts of the world to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic and its spread from Wuhan to the rest of the world, I learned of how uncomfortable many of my Japanese interrogators had already become of China’s new approach to foreign relations. None of them showed anything but good will towards China and its people. But the increasingly assertive approach taken by the Xi Jinping Administration nonetheless raised questions among many of them, in particularly over Xi’s longer-term ambitions and their implications for Japan.
Aerial view of a cargo ship being loaded from a port filled with containers
China’s rapid modernization has made it an important trade partner with Japan and other nations
While the focus of most of the conversations I had with my Japanese acquaintances and friends was China, what inspired me the most was the perspectives they took on these subjects. They were well aware of the longstanding Japanese assistance to China’s modernization through the massive allocation of Japan’s development budget to China for a couple of decades after Deng Xiaoping started ‘the reform and opening up’ process, but none mentioned this until I raised it specifically. The sense I gained was that while they had previously been keen to help with China’s modernization, they started to wonder if the resurgent China would turn out to be a friendly neighbour for Japan and the region after Xi came to power.
The discomfort some of my interrogators revealed, ever so gently, had to do with their experience on the ground. One of them, a senior university professor, happened to be involved in dealing with the eventual release of a colleague who had been arrested and detained for a prolong period for the acquisition of certain research material during a field research visit in China a couple of years back. A fellow social scientist I can see myself seeking to collect similar type of research material when conducting legitimate field research in China. The fact that some colleagues, of whichever nationality, were imprisoned for doing so is chilling and disconcerting. I can understand how those who were at the forefront dealing with such cases start to ask themselves questions they had previously ignored and avoided. If questions that can potentially be embarrassing to the Chinese Government can no longer be asked without risking arrest and imprisonment, how much scope is there left for open and mutually beneficial academic exchanges?
What also impressed me was how comfortable my Japanese interrogators were with the American ‘expropriation’ of the concept ‘Indo-Pacific’, which Japanese colleagues used for some time before the U.S.A. saw its utility in place of the old ‘Asia-Pacific’ paradigm. To me, it reflected a diplomatic maturity for which the Ministry for Foreign Affairs should rightly be proud. The conceptualization clearly works well from the Japanese perspective. Given the centrality of the U.S.A. to Japan’s security, getting the U.S.A. to think about security in the general region along Japan’s preferred paradigm and embraces it as its own conceptualization unquestionably work to Japan’s best interest. While Japanese diplomacy has clearly worked its charm on the U.S.A on this, I have not yet seen evidence of comparable success when it is applied to the People’s Republic of China.
My week-long visit to Japan was highly rewarding intellectually and personally. It was rewarding as I got to gain a deeper level of understanding of Japan’s approach to the rise of China, and have made new friends. It reminded me powerfully that there is much scope for synergy for enhancing our knowledge on important subjects like China between the Japanese speaking and the English-speaking parts of academia. The Pandemic has the effect of making international travel much more difficult for a prolonged period of time. It meant follow up on my visit could not be done meaningfully for some time. But with travel restrictions being lifted, I look forward to engaging with my Japanese friends and colleagues, old and new, much more as we seek to improve our understanding of China’s politics, foreign and security policy.
Steve Tsang is a Professor of Chinese Studies & Director of the China Institute, SOAS University of London
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