"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 or artificial trade barriers."
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida spoke those hopeful words while in office in January 1951, as the Cold War was beginning in earnest in the Pacific and China had already entered the Korean War. Japan-China relations were fizzling, as China adopted Communism alongside the Soviet Union while Japan was still aligned with the United States and the broader Western world. The two rival ideological blocs settled into their respective postures, leaving Japan with little space to form its own diplomatic relationships. The United States eventually compelled Japan to sign a peace treaty with fellow U.S. ally Taiwan, further complicating any Japanese outreach to the mainland until Washington itself began a rapprochement with Beijing in 1972.
The United States is ramping up its efforts to contain a rising China in the Pacific, and Japan is caught in the middle, trying to survive against U.S. protectionism and improve its historically tense relationship with China. U.S. diplomatic moves are threatening the globalized system that has benefitted both China and Japan, meaning the two have a great deal of common ground. But there are longstanding geopolitical reasons for the frictions between them.
Fast forward to 2018, and Japan finds itself once again embroiled in a great power competition between China and the United States. Japan is trying as best it can to manage its own relationship with China outside of China-U.S. relations, and this effort is aided by U.S. trade pressure on both countries, which is driving the two to defend the liberal economic order from which they have immensely benefited.
A Major Anniversary
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a landmark trip to China — the first Japanese state visit to the country in seven years. The summit that Abe is attending will likely showcase memorandums of understanding for Belt and Road infrastructure cooperation, agreements for naval exchanges, cooperation on artificial intelligence and long-stagnant joint East China Sea energy exploration plans.
Abe's visit to China coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, which sparked a multi-decade relationship in which Japan provided development assistance, technical aid and investment that enabled China to grow into an economic powerhouse. But over the past decade, China's gross domestic product (GDP) has surpassed that of Japan and the Chinese military has begun aggressively expanding in the region, once again causing friction between Tokyo and Beijing. Indeed, on entering office in 2012, Abe lamented that Chinese-Japanese relations were at their worst since World War II, and he has strived to thaw their frosty relationship despite setbacks.
A Complicated History
The Japan-China dynamic of recent years bears a strong resemblance to the countries' slow process of resuming a positive relationship in the 1970s. In the immediate wake of World War II, Japan had pinned its hopes for rehabilitating its economy on access to China's enormous markets. But the 1949 communist victory in China — as well as the Korean War and zero-sum questions about Beijing's rival, Taipei — made it risky for Japan to forge amicable relations with China. For Beijing, fresh memories of Japanese imperial aggression and a tightening Soviet alliance also made such relations difficult. Japan's ties with the U.S. became increasingly vital, while at the same time limiting any Japanese efforts to strike a balance with China. Regardless, Japan sought as best it could to forge economic links with China within this straitjacket beginning in the mid-1950s, succeeding in making nascent business and trade connections.
After U.S. President Richard Nixon announced his country's plans to normalize relations with China in 1971, with the goal of deepening the rift in China-Soviet ties, Japan was left scrambling to sort out its own rapprochement with the country it had long been trying to get closer to. Japan immediately began talks about improving diplomatic relations with China, switching allegiance from Taiwan back to China in 1972 and eventually signing the friendship treaty, which went into effect Oct. 23, 1978.
For China, Japan was just a small part of a larger picture, in which normalizing relations with the United States was the ultimate goal. By the early 70s, the People's Republic was being pressured by Russia at the same time that it was reeling amid the intense political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. With the Chinese-Soviet rift deepening, China was eager to break out of its international isolation and diversify its outreach. China's dialogue with Japan — a key U.S. ally and potential spoiler to better U.S.-China relations — was one part of a broader process of rebalancing toward the United States and away from the Soviets.
But for Japan, outreach to China was itself the goal, representing the opportunity for Japan to free itself from the strictures of a heavy reliance on the United States. Japan was pushing to gain greater shutaisei, or autonomy, and diversify its foreign policy across Cold War lines. The month before the Nixon announcement, Japan had at long last concluded a treaty with the United States that restored Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa — a momentous occasion for Japan in regaining a level of autonomy. Meanwhile, Tokyo had already begun reaching out to partners outside of the U.S. sphere. In early 1971 Japan reached out to North Vietnam, in February 1972 it normalized relations with the Mongolian People's Republic and it also began World War II peace talks with the Soviet Union. (These remain unfinished). A better relationship with China was a critical next step.
After the 1978 agreement, China began opening and reforming its economy with the help of major Japanese investment, expertise and official development assistance. The Japanese aid fueled China's booming growth in the years after, making up for shortfalls in Chinese domestic capital and support infrastructure, electrification and industrialization. Japan's goal in providing official development was to modernize China and incentivize it to maintain cooperation with the West, because a collapse of the China-West dynamic would again put Japan in a disadvantageous position.
Cold War Echoes
Today, Japan is once again trying to gain some degree of latitude in the broader power competition between the United States and China. As Washington steadily ratchets up pressure on China using trade, Taiwan ties and other means, Japan is worried that its China foreign policy could be held hostage to U.S. interests. This is concerning for Japan, which could be left holding the bag as the United States moves toward a period of inward orientation and seeks to devolve responsibility in the Pacific to its allies in the region.
At the same time, U.S. trade pressure is not just bearing down on China but on Japan, an export-oriented economy that needs globalization to sustain itself. In its protectionist push, the United States has even threatened to slap tariffs on Japan's auto exports. Already Japan's largest trading partner, China will become increasingly critical, particularly as Japan adjusts to demographic decline.
Thus, in their current outreach to one another, China and Japan are focusing on a common cause: they both face the challenge of surviving an eroding liberal world order that has benefited them. And both face risks from a rapid, U.S.-driven shift in the Korean Peninsula that could sideline them.
But this does not mean that Japan-China frictions will ever be put completely to rest. China's ongoing transition from an inwardly focused continental power to a dynamic maritime power butts up against Japan's imperatives as an island nation. In fact, it was a purely bilateral dispute over ownership of the Senkaku Islands that sunk Abe's hopes of strengthening Japanese-China relations in 2012.
What to Watch For
As in the 20th century, the China-U.S. competition will play out across the broader Indo-Pacific, and it will now expand to the further reaches of Africa and Central Asia. China's continued rise will also challenge Japan's own geopolitical interests, namely maintaining trade and a strong hand in the maritime sphere. But even as Japan tries to maintain a somewhat strong front toward China, it also wants to channel competition into cooperation. This will mean ensuring that Japan and China's relationship does not deteriorate even if U.S.-China relations do. Japan does not want to chasten China as the United States does; rather, it wants to shape China's rise in the Pacific to benefit Japan and keep it out of any U.S.-China firing lines. Fortunately for Japan, its current economic heft and its inevitable movement toward military renormalization, which will come with enhanced autonomy from the United States, mean that Tokyo is better able to shape its own bilateral relationships than it was during the Cold War.
In the broader context of the U.S.-China great power competition, Japan is complicating Washington's strategy with its drive to improve ties with China while maintaining its security alliance with the United States and deepening ties with players like India, Australia and others. The complex balancing act undermines U.S. attempts to firm up its alliance network in the region to counter China. This scenario, which works to Beijing's advantage, is a key reason why China is using primarily economic cooperation and joint development projects as a means of connecting with Japan and other middle powers.