Japan's balancing act between China and US: A test of Japanese wisdom

China Military Online
Li Jiayao
2021-02-23 17:18:14

By Hu Jiping

When Donald Trump, who did not attach importance to allies, was holding office, Japan was sure to feel dissatisfied and disappointed despite no public expression of anger towards the US like the European countries. But now, Japan feels hopefulaboutthe bilateral relationship with the US after Joe Biden officially took office, who had announced torestore the relationship between the US and its allies long before once he could succeed in the US presidential election. At the recentvirtual meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) leaders and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the United States, Japan, India, and Australia (The Quad), Japan and the US have communicated with each other.

In terms of which policies does Japan expect to strengthen cooperation with the US? According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shimbunin Japan, a 54% majority expected US-Japan cooperation to “strengthen the suppression on China and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the highest rating, followed byonly 43% who favoredthe US-Japan cooperation in fighting against the COVID-19 pandimic. It can be seen that it is a widespreadconcern among Japanese citizens that China is a security threatto Japan, andthereby the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance to deter and keep watch China is a proper choice.

Besides, another poll on the China-Japan relationship released by the Cabinet Office, Government of Japan on February 19, found that only 17.1% of the interviewed Japanese people thought China-Japan relations are friendly, and 81.8% thought just the opposite. Meanwhile, the majority of Japanese people agreed on the importance of the bilateralties to the development of the two countries, accounting for 78.2% of the interviewees, and only 20.6% thought it was “not important”.

The rise of the “China threat theory” in Japanand the deterioration of the Japanese people’s impression ofChina are mainly a result of Japanese media reports, such as the so-called “invasion into Japan’s territorial waters by Chinese coast guard vessels” and intensified activities of China in waters around the Diaoyu Islands. Japanese media coverage has ignored the fact that there areterritorial disputes between China and Japan, and the selective stories of imbalance featuring provocative wording on the Japanese side have also instigated anger among its public.

An article released onRyukyu Shimpoby Japanese scholar Tomoki Izumikawa pointed out in January this year that although there have been more Chinese public service vessels taking voyages in waters off the Diaoyu Islands and adjacent areas in 2020, the number of patrol ships entering the12 nautical milesterritorial limits off the Diaoyu Islands hasdeclined sharply, suggesting that China is more “restrained” in taking actions. Unfortunately, few people in Japan know these.

Besides, the media are not the mere source that triggers the “sense of threat” among Japanese citizens. The issue as mentioned above concerning the activity escalationby Chinese public service vessels has also frequently appeared among and garnered widespread attentionfrom parliament members of Japan, political parties, as well as government and diplomatic fields.

Since US president Joe Biden took office,Yoshihide Suga, newly elected prime minister of Japan and Biden, as well as Japanese and US foreign and defense ministers, have held four phone conversations, all of which attached great importance to the“Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty which is supposed to be applied to China’s Diaoyu Islands”, a highlighted and primary topic. This is particularly incongruent in the conversation between Yoshihide Suga and Biden for election-winningcongratulation. The degree of emphasis is rarely seen in diplomacy. It may even leave an impression that “the situation in the East China Sea has been quiteintense, and China-Japan conflicts are about to occur over territorial disputes” on world people.

Many countries, including China and Japan, are itching to learnBiden’s policies since he officially took office. The incumbent US President Joe Biden, unlike his predecessors, has regarded China as a “serious competitor” rather than a “threat” to the US. On the other hand, China has also shown a positive posture towards easing China-US relations. In view of the global impact of China-US relations, most countries, including Japan, are likely to hope that the US and China could establish stable, rules-based competition and cooperation relations.

As the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China anda power in Asia, Japan is bound to buildfavorable bilateral relations with both the US and China, thereby forming a stable China-US-Japan cooperation framework. This is conducive to regional peace and stability and in line with the long-term interests of Japan. Besides, Japan can and is capable of playing an active role in this process.

The China-Japan cooperation far outweighs their differences. However, issues and obstacles in history and territory facing them are challenging to be entirely resolved in the short term. In this regard, the heads of state from both countrieshave decided to strengthen the political guidance towards their bilateral relations. To this end, it is essential to respond to crises and resolve disputes peacefully.

When it comes tothe territorial issue, the Japanese side,on the one hand, does not positively acknowledge the existence of territorial disputes and thus is generally unwilling to resolve them through negotiations. On the other hand, it requires the US, which does not hold a position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, to backJapan with force. This is not a constructive attitude for the development of China-Japan relations and can even cause endless troubles. If Japan wants to take this as a “starter” to strengthen the US-Japan alliance, thelong-term negative impact onChina-US relations and China-US-Japan cooperation is unavoidable.

Japan always takes the US as an ally and theJapan-China relationship as one of its most important bilateral relations in diplomatic strategy. It may be more in line with Japan’s national interests to develop sound US-Japan and Japan-China relations while maintaining a proper balance so that the two bilateral ties will not harm each other and play an active role in the development of the China-US relationship. Furthermore,the strategic value and status of Japan itselfmay also get improved.

(The author, Research Professor, is Vice Presidentof China Institutes ofContemporary International Relations.)

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