The Big Chill: Domestic Insecurities and Sino-Japanese Relations

China and Japan sparred once again, this time at the United Nations.  Last week, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs charged Japan with amassing excessive amounts of sensitive nuclear materials, notably 1,200 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium and 48 tons of separated plutonium (of which about a quarter is stored on Japanese territory).  That is sufficient, he claimed, for Japan to make 1,350 nuclear warheads.  Japan’s disarmament envoy shot back that his country’s nuclear program has safely operated under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards for more than 50 years.  He added that over that time Japan has consistently demonstrated its peaceful intentions and would not pose a threat to other countries.[1]  Given that he directed his response at China’s ambassador, one may have also taken it as a reminder of China’s recent aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas.

Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping at APEC 2014

The pointed exchange marked another episode in the downward path of relations between China and Japan.  It was not so long ago both countries got along.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they enjoyed ever closer economic ties.  Many blame the current deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on the tensions that arose over Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in 2010 or Tokyo’s purchase of them from private Japanese owners in 2012.  Certainly trade between the two countries has fallen ever since then.  (See table.)  But the dispute over the islands was just the spark.  China and Japan have substantially changed over the last two decades, both in absolute and relative terms.  Both countries have developed domestic insecurities that led them to view each other with greater concern.

On the surface, China does not seem to have any cause for insecurity.  Its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ostensibly at the pinnacle of its power.  The government at which it is the head has presided over a 35-year economic expansion that has made China the envy of the developing world.  It is even doling out largesse under the auspices of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will likely expand its influence across Asia and Africa.

Yet the CCP has reason to be anxious.  In its headlong push for economic growth, it often ignored public ire over government land grabs, pollution, and workers’ rights.  The party’s widespread corruption further dented its credibility.  Hence, despite the CCP’s best efforts to eliminate organized dissent, the number of public protests has recently risen.[2]  Meanwhile, China’s fast-rising economy, once the CCP’s shining achievement, is losing its luster amid sagging exports, bursting property bubbles, and rapidly mounting debts.  Seen in that light, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and AIIB begin to look more like a worried search for growth abroad (and work for its infrastructure-building companies) than a coherent strategy to connect Eurasia’s economies.

Adding to the CCP’s unease is the ever-smaller number of true believers in its Marxist-Leninist ideology.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote Marxism have fallen flat.  So, the CCP has returned to nationalism to bolster its popular appeal.  A big part of that has always been showcasing the CCP as China’s savior from Japanese occupation (while largely omitting the role of Taiwan’s Kuomintang).  The CCP seems to believe that its ceaseless criticism of Japan proves that it still faithfully stands watch against any revival of Japanese militarism that could threaten China.

Linked to that narrative, the CCP has tried to show how much stronger China has become under its rule.  That was made clear in September when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (and China’s victory over Japan) with a massive military parade in Beijing.  The martial display conveyed the message to the Chinese people that they should be confident in the ability of the CCP to not only defend China, but also govern it.  On the other hand, that Beijing felt the need to use such demonstrations of strength to dispel doubts about its political legitimacy probably worried its neighbors.

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Japan has grown insecure too.  It can no longer rest easy as Asia’s dominant economic power, a title that it lost to China a decade ago.  It is increasingly aware of its national vulnerabilities.  Japan’s population is ageing fast and shrinking.  That demographic shift not only has implications for every aspect of Japanese society, but also will make economic growth harder to achieve.  That is doubly concerning for Japan, which is still struggling to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.

Japanese leaders are all too well aware that China’s rise is remaking the regional hierarchy in Asia.  They realize that Japan cannot afford to remain forever quiescent, if it is to avoid being consigned to a subordinate role in the new order.  That has compounded Japan’s sense of unease, because Japan knows that it must keep the power gap between China and Japan from growing wider, even though it now has fewer resources with which to do so.  Fortunately for Japan, other Asian countries have begun to feel the same way.  India, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all embraced Japan.

Tokyo has taken advantage of that sentiment and become far more diplomatically active across the region, if only to prevent China from consolidating its power there.  As Xi has pushed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has never been far away.  Abe has travelled to Southeast Asia numerous times to ink economic, political, and even a few military cooperation agreements.  Last week, Abe began a five-country tour through Central Asia, which lies at the heart of China’s “One Road.”  A week earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched a destroyer to participate in naval drills with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

Meanwhile, there has been a generational change in Japan.  Older Japanese who had been willing to accept Japan’s diminished international stature as penance for its militarist past are passing from the scene.  Younger Japanese who have no connection with that past believe that their country has proven itself to be a responsible actor in world affairs.  Today, a majority of Japanese believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s, which China relishes reminding Japan of at every turn.  Unsurprisingly, recent polls showed that only 7 percent of Japanese viewed China favorably (down from 55 percent in 2002).  Even more telling, China’s very unfavorable rating in Japan climbed to 48 percent.[3]

The domestic insecurities of China and Japan are unlikely to abate soon.  China’s insecurities, bound up with those of the CCP, will grow if the Chinese economy continues to slow.  Japan’s insecurities are tied to its long-term demographic trends.  Both sets of insecurities continue to drive a wedge between the two countries.  Even the non-governmental Beijing-Tokyo Forum, whose primary purpose is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, has found it harder to reach a consensus.  The forum, which invites high-level former government officials from both countries, has always managed to eke out a joint statement, even during particularly testy times in Sino-Japanese relations like 2012.  This week it concluded without managing even that.  For the moment, relations between China and Japan are on ice.  The region should be grateful that the latest row between the two countries occurred inside the United Nations and not out in the East China Sea.

[1] “China Slams Japan’s Plutonium Stockpile, Frets About Nuke Armament,” Japan Bullet, October 21, 2015.

[2] See China Labor Bulletin.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014; Pew Research Center, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” July 2013.

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U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?

At times, it seemed as though the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would go on interminably.  Begun in 2010, the TPP evolved from the four-country Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement to encompass twelve Asia-Pacific countries, including the United States.  It would eventually take five years for the trade representatives from those countries to hammer out an agreement, the final terms of which were settled on Monday morning.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Member Countries

Over the coming months, much will be said, both for and against, the possible economic and social implications of the TPP as it is debated in the legislatures of its twelve member countries before it can be enacted.  But the TPP also carries with it strategic implications—not only for its smaller members, but also for its largest, the United States.  American interest in the TPP began during the last year of President George W. Bush’s tenure.  But it was the administration of President Barack Obama that moved the TPP to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.  So important has the TPP become that Obama persuaded his political opponents in the U.S. Congress to award him “fast-track” trade promotion authority, so that American trade representatives could assure their counterparts from other countries that the U.S. legislative body would not tinker with the specific terms of the trade agreement once it was reached.

Strategically, the United States has come to see the TPP as critical to its long-term security in the Asia-Pacific.  It helps to ensure that, even with China’s rise, countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean would have economic incentives to pursue strong relationships with the United States.  As that line of thinking goes, the more closely the trade interests of the TPP’s twelve member countries are aligned, the more closely their economies will integrate and, ultimately, the more likely their political outlooks will align.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is also pursuing a trade agreement similar to the TPP with the countries of Europe called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

That line of thinking is not lost on either China or Russia.  While China chose not to participate in the TPP to avoid more pressure to remove its many trade barriers, it pushed for another (less onerous) trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which did not include the United States.  China has also championed its own form of economic integration, called the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (tying together China’s land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and sea-based “Maritime Silk Road” efforts).  That initiative has sought to knit together the various economies along the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe.  Beijing even created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, in part, to support the construction of the trade infrastructure needed to facilitate that integration.

For its part, Russia has tried to cobble together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) from the countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union.  Russia has pursued the economic integration of the former Soviet republics as a way to not only expand its market space, but also strengthen its sphere of influence over them.  While most of the former Soviet republics could not ignore the economic potential of the EEU, they have been cautious about their participation in it.  Even Kazakhstan, an early supporter of the EEU, has repeatedly stressed that the EEU should remain an economic, rather than a political, grouping.  As can be expected, most former Soviet republics are protective of their new-found sovereignty.  And so, they are keenly sensitive to any Russian scheme that may absorb them into a reconstituted empire, particularly in light of what has happened to Ukraine’s Crimea and Donetsk provinces.

But lest we are to believe that closer trade and economic ties will inevitably lead to closer political alignment, history provides plenty of examples where that failed to happen.  One cannot say that closer economic integration between the European Union and Russia has brought the two to a more closely aligned political outlook.  Instead, they have used their respective trade dependencies on one another as weapons against one another in their political clash over Ukraine.

In the Asia-Pacific, one needs to look no further than the experience of China and Japan.  In the 1990s, Japanese companies led the multinational charge to set up outsourced factories and develop new markets in China.  In 1999 the two countries did $66 billion in bilateral trade.  By 2011 that figure climbed to $345 billion.  The two economies became increasingly integrated, with China more reliant on Japan for industrial machinery and Japan more reliant on China for consumer goods.  But then tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which began in late 2010, boiled over in 2012 and sparked anti-Japanese riots in China.  Tensions have run high ever since, cooling their economic relationship.  Every year after 2011 trade between the two countries has fallen.  Last year their bilateral trade slipped to $309 billion; the trade figures for August 2015 suggest that this year’s total will be lower still (indeed it is on track for a steep decline).  Rising costs in China and a stagnant Japanese economy surely contributed too, but they cannot fully explain the drop, given China’s continued, albeit slower, economic growth.

China Japan Bilateral Trade in Goods

The causal logic that closer trade and economic ties will lead to closer political alignment could be turned on its head.  One could argue that it is when political outlooks are aligned that closer economic integration often seems desirable (and also that when political outlooks are in conflict that economic integration often seems dangerous).  That is not to say that the TPP is not a worthy accomplishment; it is.  But the United States should be wary of relying too heavily on the TPP to ensure its security in the Asia-Pacific.  Even if the U.S. Senate ratifies the trade agreement, the United States should continue to actively pursue other strategic initiatives in the region with equal verve.

[1] Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese Trade and Investment Statistics, 1999-2015.

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