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Japan-China Rift and East Asian Security

Dr. G V C Naidu was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 05, 2006

    The feud between the two Asian giants is getting shriller. No sooner China had announced its 'peaceful development' policy through a White Paper than the Japanese foreign minister voiced his concern about the 'considerable threat' that Beijing posed. The latest spat in the running battle of charges and counter-charges is the controversial suicide by a consular staff in Japan's embassy at Beijing. The frosty relationship between the two countries is bound to cast a big shadow over the entire East Asian region in the coming years.

    If one were to evaluate major developments in the Asia Pacific in 2005, three stand out: the first-ever East Asia Summit (EAS); India's increased entrenchment in Asia Pacific regional affairs; and further deterioration of relations between Japan and China. Among these, the worsening row between Japan and China will perhaps have a far greater impact on regional security and economic architecture. Obviously, no East Asian community or economic integration can ever fructify so long as these two giants remain at loggerheads. The Chinese (and South Korean) refusal to meet Prime Minister Koizumi on the sidelines of ASEAN Plus Three summit for an informal trilateral meeting, as has been the normal practice, is an indication of how deep the gulf has become. But what really ails the relationship?

    Many attribute the recent downslide to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's insistence on visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine where an estimated 2.5 million war dead (and a thousand or so non-Japanese) who fought for Japan since the Meiji Restoration, including 14 Class A criminals implicated for their role in World War II, are enshrined. China's outrage is a result of what it perceives to be Japan's failure to fully atone for the sins it committed during the occupation of many Asian countries before and during the War. Japan interprets Chinese outbursts as pressure tactics to compel it not to assume a larger political role so that Beijing emerges as the leader of East Asia. While it is true that China and South Korea in particular bore the brunt of Japanese atrocities, there is no way really to measure how genuinely remorseful Japanese leaders have been for their past actions despite nearly 19 official 'apologies' so far.

    Though tension has been intensifying in the last few years, bilateral relations probably hit their nadir in April 2005 when violent demonstrations broke out in most major cities across China. The ostensible reason for these protests was Japanese approval of a textbook for high school students (one of 27 cleared so far), which was perceived to be rightwing-inspired and which glosses over what Japanese soldiers did during their occupation of China.

    A more serious problem is going to be the strong nationalist feelings a series of events in the last few years have fuelled. This can not only badly undermine regional peace and stability but also affect the economic dynamism that is sweeping across the region.

    China is perturbed by what it perceives as attempts by Japan to cleverly use the post-9/11 political environment to break free from self-imposed shackles and remilitarise itself. Japan, for its part, maintains that China's inexorable military modernisation with double-digit defence allocations is causing concern especially because of the non-transparent nature of the Chinese system.

    It is true that Japanese security policies are undergoing profound changes and it has taken certain decisions that were unthinkable a few years ago. These changes, however, need to be seen in the context of the changing global and regional security matrix. Ideally, Tokyo would prefer cold war arrangements from which it benefited enormously to continue, but circumstances have changed fundamentally. It is no secret that the US, even as it tries to restructure its forward deployments in East Asia, is exerting enormous pressure on Japan to undertake greater security responsibilities and provide corresponding contributions to justify and sustain the security alliance. For instance, after dithering for nearly two decades, Japan decided in May 2003 to join the US-led ballistic missile defense programme (BMD) and has contributed, more symbolic than substantial, to the American war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    There are other developments as well that have emerged as major security challenges for Japan. The whole debate in South Korea over its 'balancing role' in the future, implying irrelevance of the American troop presence in that country, might tilt the strategic balance against Japan. Further, China's forceful moves on the disputed Senkakus, repeated Chinese naval incursions into the Japanese territorial waters, continued stalemate over the North Korean nuclear issue, and not so subtle Chinese attempts to marginalise Japan from East Asian affairs have unnerved the Japanese. While these have forced Japan to initiate certain measures, they are also seen as opportunities to chart a new course for the country.

    There is no doubt that there has been a rightward tilt in the Japanese polity as testified by Koizumi's thumping victory in the September 2005 lower house elections. In fact, though foreign policy issues hardly figured in the pre-election debates, in hindsight it is obvious that China's attitude played a significant role in influencing voters. The impression that Koizumi could stand up to the Chinese, by naming China as a potential threat in the December 2004 New Defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG), by stating Taiwan as a common security concern for Japan and the US in February 2005, and by persisting with visits to the Yasukuni, was instrumental in the ruling LDP's landslide victory. At the same time, what needs underscoring is the maturity with which Japan has reacted to China's hostile actions.

    If one were to surmise that Koizumi's Yasukuni sojourns are the root cause of the current rift between Japan and China, it will be like missing the wood for the trees. There are several other fundamental reasons. One, for the first time in the last several centuries Japan has to contend with the rise of a new power centre in its vicinity. Two, if history is any guide, every time there is a rise of a new power it invariably tends to disturb the existing status quo, which means a rising China would tend to be ambitious and would aspire for greater strategic space, political rhetoric about 'peaceful development' notwithstanding. No wonder Japan feels threatened.

    Unlike the US-Soviet rivalry, in the case Japan and China there is a strong economic dimension. Bilateral trade has surpassed US $200 billion (including Hong Kong), thus making China Japan's largest trading partner. Japanese have invested nearly $70 billion in China and Tokyo has extended over $33 billion as Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Beijing. Yet, strong economic interdependence has failed to alleviate political differences. On the contrary, recent data suggests that uneasy political relations are beginning to render even economics 'cold.' Japanese exports, which rose by 20 per cent annually since 2001, have slowed to 3.2 per cent in the first eight months of 2005. Further, in the first half of 2005, Japanese direct investments declined by 8.2 per cent over the same period last year. Surely, with the explosion of Chinese trade, today the Chinese market is more important for Japan than the other way round. There could be many reasons for the slow down, but the role of 'cold political relations' cannot be ignored.

    What does it all mean to India? Japanese have become more vocal about India as an alternative to China in the sphere of economic interaction. But Chinese aver that India is nowhere near the kind of opportunities that they can offer. It is too simplistic to infer that a loss to China is an automatic gain for India, though soured relations between Japan and China are showing their effect on Japan-India relations, which have qualitatively improved in the recent past especially in the politico-strategic field. India has also caught the attention of Japanese investors, not necessarily because of Tokyo's political problems with Beijing but because of economic opportunities that India offers. The betterment of India's relations with Japan should be seen in the context of the changing East Asian environment and India's potential to contribute to regional stability and development because New Delhi and Tokyo share common interests and concerns and more importantly have no clashing interests. The strategic dimension among Japan, China and India is something that appears to be unavoidable.