Politics, No.4  Jan. 25, 2011


In 2010, China overtook Japan in gross domestic product to become the world’s second-largest economy–a distinction Japan had held for nearly 50 years. But this ballyhooed “reversal” is a purely economic phenomenon. There is no reason why it should mean any fundamental change in the role that Japan plays to bring about peace and prosperity as a member of the international community. The real question for Japan today is whether the country can adopt a global perspective on the changes that are already underway, as symbolized by this latest “reversal,” and whether it can succeed in rebuilding an effective and viable international role for itself in the years ahead. The basic focus of that role should be the preservation of a liberal, open international order.

After a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels in the waters around the Senkaku Islands last fall, Beijing’s coercive and high-handed response gave ample cause for concern that China’s rising power threatens the stability of the liberal, open international order. Given the key role that China can be expected to play in the turbulent global transition period ahead, Tokyo’s dealings with Beijing must be built on a broad international perspective, one that embraces not only the East Asian region but the entire world.

Sharpening the Contrast

The strangest thing about the flap that followed the Senkaku Islands collision last fall was China’s narrowly nationalistic reaction, as seen in Beijing’s uncompromising insistence on sovereign rights and defense of China’s purported territory, as well as the fierce public displays of nationalism. The reaction revealed China as a country excessively fixated on national sovereignty and territorial integrity as absolute principles that trump everything else.

Japanese attitudes could hardly be more different. For most Japanese, national sovereignty and territorial integrity are peripheral issues. Even at the height of the furor over the incident, indignant cries asserting Japan’s sovereignty over the islands were rarely heard from the general public. The backlash that many Japanese people felt against China arose from a strong sense of unease in the face of Beijing’s high-handed way of commandeering economic activity and even tourism for political purposes, and the emotional, territorial nationalism of the Chinese public. The honest reaction of the average Japanese citizen in the face of this mass display of rage was simply, “What in the world has gotten into them?” In a way, this incomprehension speaks to the advanced value system of ordinary Japanese citizens, who show little interest in issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ironically, however, the international community tends to equate rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan with resurgent nationalism. And herein lies the trap lurking for Japan in its diplomatic dealings with China. When Beijing resorts to archaic strong-arm tactics, it gives rise to a vicious circle, stirring up the lingering embers of conservatism in Japanese society. Rising tensions energize the conservative elements in Japan, and this contributes to a misleading impression of a rising tide of Japanese rightwing sentiment, even though at heart Japan’s foreign policy is untouched by such impulses. The fact is that as Japan-China relations have spiraled in recent years as a result of official Japanese visits to Yasukuni Shrine and other hot-button issues, a widespread perception has grown up internationally of a comparable resurgence of nationalist feeling in both China and Japan. This has led to a general unwillingness in the international community to support one side over the other.

This perception poses a major problem for Tokyo in terms of international diplomacy, since Japan needs to stress the contrast between Japan and China in order to advance its strategic interests. If the international community regards Japan and China as sharing a similar nationalist obsession with sovereignty and territorial integrity, Tokyo cannot hope to succeed in its effort to win international support for a distinctly Japanese, internationalist brand of diplomacy that naturally stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese approach.

The True Lessons to be Drawn from the Senkaku Incident

The Japanese government responded to the Senkaku incident by arresting the skipper of the Chinese fishing vessel according to Japanese law. However, on September 24 the Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office announced that the skipper would be released. The district prosecutor’s decision triggered a loud public outcry against the cabinet of Kan Naoto for caving in to Beijing’s pressure tactics. Implicit in this criticism was the accusation–from the Japanese people themselves–that the government had violated the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

Of course, it is quite likely that political considerations influenced the prosecutor’s decision. But the process itself was firmly grounded in the basic democratic principle of the separation of powers. As a purely domestic issue, the Japanese have every right to investigate communications between the Prime Minister’s Office and the public prosecutor in the days leading up to the decision. But for Japan-China relations or Japanese diplomacy in general, the salient issue is the brazen political pressure applied by Beijing as the Japanese judiciary was handling the case. The incident revealed huge differences between the accepted understanding in Japan and China of such generally accepted democratic principles as the separation of powers.

Unfortunately, the popular Japanese reaction–which seemed to suggest that Japan should respond to China’s coercive tactics by taking an equally tough stance itself–can only act as an impediment to Tokyo’s efforts to establish its own distinctive brand of diplomacy. No attempt by Japan to square off with China in Beijing’s favored field of power politics can possibly form any part of a viable, systematic strategy. Japan long ago abandoned the theater of power politics.

To avoid this trap in its dealings with China, Tokyo must resist the impulse to overreact to China’s anachronistic “might is right” approach to international affairs. Instead of approaching its dealings with China from a narrow bilateral perspective, it must be aware of the international context and remain true to the particular attributes and strengths of a Japanese style of diplomacy. Doing so will naturally bring out the contrast with China’s approach.

China in a Changing World Order

Once we frame the challenge of Japan’s relations with China in these terms, it is clear where Japan’s global foreign-policy priorities lie. China’s rising power is making the future of the liberal, open international order unclear–we must focus on rebuilding and reinforcing that order. Accordingly, Japan’s foreign-policy goals should be as follows: from an economic perspective, rebuilding liberal and open trade and currency systems; from a political perspective, promoting international relations built on the principles of freedom and democracy; and in the realm of security, countering threats of all kinds to the stability of the liberal, open international order.

From an international standpoint, it hardly needs to be stressed that China’s growing power is of vital importance because of China’s potential to decisively affect the global economic, political, and security situation–in short, the very future of the liberal, open international order. And Beijing’s strong-arm tactics in the wake of the Senkaku incident gave the Japanese a clear indication that the liberal, open international order to which Japan and many other members of the international community have grown accustomed is incompatible with China’s concept of the national interest and its vision for an international order. More generally, China’s entire diplomatic policy and military strategy in recent years have given ample evidence of an impulse to challenge some of the core components of the prevailing US-centered international order.

This is ironic, given that no country has benefited more than China from the liberal international order in the years since the dramatic normalization of US-China relations in the early 1970s. China’s policy of economic opening and reform and its subsequent meteoric rise were both made possible by this order.

The economic turmoil triggered by the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse has raised questions about America’s continued world leadership, and the new emphasis on international cooperation under US President Barack Obama underscores these questions. Yet one can scarcely imagine a China-centered world order replacing the current US-centered one. Even as we struggle to discern the outlines of the future international order, the alien presence of China looms ever larger and more assertive. The uncertainty surrounding the transition ahead exacerbates premonitions that we are approaching an era of upheaval.

Strategy and Vision for a New Era

In the decades after World War II, Japan helped build a foundation for development and political stability across Asia and beyond. In this way, Japan contributed to the welfare and security of peoples around the world by focusing on “comprehensive security” and “human security.” Japan was criticized for focusing too narrowly on its own economic self-interest as it worked to rebuild and expand its economy after World War II. But as time went on, and particularly from the 1970s on, our foreign policy turned decisively in the direction of internationalism. Support for China’s program of economic opening and reform was an important component of that policy. At the same time, chastened by its experience in World War II, Japan has demonstrated tremendous restraint in its traditional defense and security policy.

The foreign policy that Japan develops in the years ahead should be the logical extension of this postwar success story. This will mean rebuilding the liberal, open world order that has sustained the peace and development of Japan and the rest of the world while protecting it against the challenges presented by a rising China.

This is not to suggest that we should leave ourselves defenseless in the face of China’s power politics games. Certainly Japan must commit itself to a strong defense and security policy. But we must never forget that there are fundamental limitations to what Japan can achieve alone. For this reason, the Japan-US alliance is vital to Japan’s security policy. We must also buttress that policy by fully integrating into it security cooperation with such like-minded nations as South Korea, Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as multilateral diplomacy through the United Nations and other international organizations.

But a rock-solid defense and security policy is merely the basic minimal component of a country’s national strategy, and it in no way rules out the pursuit of a liberal, internationalist vision of world affairs. On the contrary, a strong, unshakable security policy is vital to back up a liberal, internationalist foreign policy. It is also fundamental to any engagement policy with China.

Unfortunately, political and public discourse in Japan tends to treat a strong defense policy and a liberal, internationalist foreign policy as two mutually exclusive options. It is time we realized the crippling effect that this mindset is having on our efforts to forge a viable strategic vision for Japan in the twenty-first century.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo Web. [December 2010]