‘Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War: Two Tigers Sharing a Mountain’

Michael Yahuda, Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War: Two tigers Sharing a Mountain (London: Routledge: 2013)

Bilateral relations between pairs of Northeast Asian countries—China, Japan, and South Korea– are becoming increasingly intertwined, always under the shadow of the United States. As we scrutinize new literature devoted to each of these relationships, we should be questioning the degree to which authors recognize the overall framework of evolving Sino-US ties and the triangularity reshaping the region. This review article on one recent addition to bilateral analysis comments on the strengths of the book as a study of the Sino-Japanese relationship that has recently been exposed as having the gravest national security impact, but it also situates this book in the context of broader strategic interactions involving the four above-mentioned states.

In his latest book, Michael Yahuda considers the evolving Sino-Japanese relationship against the background of a “rising” China and “stagnant” Japan, through the standard theoretical lenses in international relations: realism (balance of power and strategic rivalry), liberal internationalism (economic interdependence), and constructivism (history and identity, with implications for domestic nationalism and politics). He brings renewed attention to both the complexity of Sino-Japanese interactions and Japan’s role in shaping regional dynamics, which are often overlooked as analysts focus on the supposed power transition between the United States and China. Strategic militarized rivalry coupled with national identity clashes will likely worsen Sino-Japanese conflict, although economic interdependence (perhaps including growing tripartite institutionalization with South Korea) and Japan’s geopolitical position through its alliance with the United States serve as constraining factors. Thus, Yahuda is optimistic that elements of cooperation will compel the two Asian neighbors to coexist with each other despite continuing rivalry. This conclusion is typical of many books since the end of the Cold War, each weighing the three theoretical orientations similarly and assigning priority to economic interdependence.

The book is a useful resource for understanding the multiple dimensions of the China-Japan relationship, and how it has evolved over time. In parsing the differing and sometimes opposing factors driving Sino-Japanese dynamics, Yahuda avoids the usual dichotomy of balancing versus bandwagoning in evaluating behavior. Rather than pitting one IR theory against another, Yahuda gives a more fluid analysis. For instance, regional institutionalism can become an arena for strategic competition and rivalry for influence rather than a force for closer integration, as illustrated in attempts by Tokyo and Beijing to seize leadership in initiatives such as FTAs, adjustments to ASEAN-related forums, and responses to the Asian financial crisis. Economic interdependence can have unclear effects on peace and conflict. Deepening economic ties have not clearly helped to resolve mutual distrust and stark political-security tensions between China and Japan, as liberal theories would predict, nor have they been effectively and sustainably employed as a means of coercion. At the same time, such clashes—not even the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands spat—have not interfered with burgeoning economic relations, which have also helped to restrain conflict escalation to some extent. This combination of antagonism and cooperation will keep Sino-Japanese relations largely fluctuating around a middle line, Yahuda concludes.

Yahuda clearly illustrates how Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry is not just based on realism, but also stems from the important but often overlooked role (both positive and negative) of national identity and history, mediated through domestic political leadership. Internal debates on Japanese identity and the country’s place in the region and world are more complicated than what many assume to be a remilitarizing or assertive Japan. Combined with a relatively pacifist public and domestic economic priorities, achieving a more “normal” security policy has been painstakingly slow and incremental. Moreover, national identity may be shaped by political leadership across different eras to serve varying domestic and strategic priorities, as well as in response to a still changing external environment. That is, identity and nationalism can be dependent and not just independent variables. Anti-Japanese public attitudes in China took root only under the Deng era in the 1980s as the CCP sought to change the basis of its historical legitimacy from victory over the KMT (which Japan arguably facilitated by weakening KMT forces) to victory over Japanese aggressors, giving rise to Chinese nationalism as we are familiar with it today. Yahuda is aware of these forces, but, as often occurs elsewhere, he lacks the framework for weighing their differential impact.

The book’s analysis draws mainly on secondary Western sources—albeit well reputed ones—along with some interviews in Tokyo and Beijing with scholars and officials. For instance, there is a lack of Chinese language sources, which limits the depth of new insights as well as first-hand representation of Chinese views. We need a more nuanced, multi-faceted treatment of internal identity debates in both China and Japan, that reaches beyond the typical considerations of history and mass nationalism, to domestic struggles over positioning the country amidst Asian and international norms, showcasing thinking about shifting security threats and structures, as well as the role of state, civil society, and politicians in decision making. Thus, we need both insight into how leadership debates are proceeding and a framework for weighing the driving forces in policy.

It has become increasingly important to evaluate Sino-Japanese relations systematically as part of interactions with the United States as well as South Korea. Bilateral relations proceed within the framework of this strategic Asia-Pacific quadrilateral, which is comprised of, first of all, the shifting dynamics of the ever-prominent Sino-US relationship, the five other bilateral relations, and the four triangular interactions. The challenge is to piece together these moving, interactive configurations into a still-missing analytical framework. Just focusing on the evolution of Sino-Japanese relations gives us too narrow a prism to grasp some of the larger forces at work, to the point of overestimating the impact of the economic factor, which is less in the forefront if we turn to triangular or quadrilateral calculations and maneuvering with Washington and Beijing.

At the very least, the security dilemma often framing China-Japan interactions should also be considered in terms of a “trilemma,” whereby actions to reassure an ally, deter a non-ally, or improve ties with the third actor could be interpreted as destabilizing for another leg of the triangle. Yahuda arguably both underestimates and overestimates the role of the United States, seemingly inclined to treat its role in the region (and the nature of its alliances) as a constant. While acknowledging that bilateral conflict is likely to intensify at least in the near future, he provides too optimistic of an assessment of the “two tigers.” The nascent Sino-Japanese crisis management talks that Yahuda mentions remain stalled with little hope of concrete progress in the near to medium-term. Tripartite institutionalization of China, Japan, and South Korea has largely been confined to the economic realm, with scarce prospect for substantive security cooperation and also a declining likelihood of a Sino-Japanese FTA or a China-Japan-Korea FTA in the current atmosphere. This CJK triangle, leaving out the US variable, is also unlikely to replace existing alliance and American-linked structures in the region, and it omits recent (sometimes competing) efforts by Japan, China, and South Korea to secure American support for their own national interests. If the CJK triangle once was a source of optimism about economics in the forefront, it now seems secondary to other triangles.

Yahuda suggests that the United States as an offshore balancer is a key determinant of the nature of Sino-Japanese ties as being neither too hot nor too cold. He assumes a cohesive US-Japan alliance that remains the bedrock of geopolitical stability in the region by providing a united front to deter China and restrain Japan. Yet, this has become less clear, with diverging threat perceptions and priorities regarding China between Tokyo and Washington. Typical realist analyses have neglected the distinctions in the type of “China threat.” Japan’s “reluctant realism” is not as simple as balancing against China’s rise in tandem with the United States. The latest unprecedented flare-up in tensions with Beijing stems specifically from direct threats to Japanese territorial sovereignty (but not to the United States) in the form of paramilitarized clashes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute. This is the first time since 1945 that Japan is facing a possible militarized conflict that does not involve the United States. Previously, China’s military modernization or blue-water ambitions remained largely abstract and potential, seen by the average Japanese in terms of Sino-US rivalry in the broader Asia-Pacific. Tokyo is now inclined to respond more strongly on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, where the US commitment is, arguably, the weakest. The crux of concerns is not so much an outright Sino-Japanese war or even that China will dominate Japan, but periodic low-level, grey-area skirmishes that threaten escalation out of miscalculation or misunderstanding. The conventional high-level and nuclear deterrence that Washington has not wavered in providing is unlikely to be as reassuring or useful in such a strategic context. Yet, the United States prefers to place Sino-Japanese ties in a broader regional and global context, where cooperation with Beijing on a host of other issues is also critical, not least a nuclear North Korea, Iran, climate change, and ultimately how to best incorporate China into the existing order without compromising on American interests. This triangularity now is at the center of calculations by all three countries, making security or even identity the priority.

What has perhaps changed in the post-2010 period is the weight of the different legs in the China-Japan-US triangle. Whereas the US-Japan leg used to be the strongest, with China seeking opportunities and probing for weaknesses, today the US-China relationship has emerged as no less a factor in shaping regional interactions. In the past, the United States has been the principal force in shaping the parameters of Sino-Japanese dynamics—but considerations of China now considerably influence American and Japanese behavior. The ever more antagonistic China-Japan leg is increasingly driving Tokyo to seek stronger American support, while Beijing pays at least lip service to its “new type of great power relationship” with the United States, capitalizing on Washington’s desire for improved ties in order to drive a wedge between the two traditional allies. Certainly, both Japan and China continue to see their respective bilateral ties with the United States as more important than Sino-Japanese relations, and in fact as key to gaining leverage over each other. Sino-Japanese tensions, in particular over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, have also arguably raised questions in Tokyo over US commitment. It is Washington instead of Tokyo fearing entrapment. While the narrow strategic focus in Tokyo seeks a two-versus-one triangle with a united US-Japan alliance countering Chinese actions (giving up its previous idealist and institutionalist aspirations of peaceful integration), Washington is working toward a more balanced configuration. This evidently has important implications for US-Japan alliance management and policy coordination toward China. It illustrates the importance of triangular analysis in a way that few studies that evaluate a bilateral relationship have been considering.

South Korea presents another parallel but also contrasting and interlocking strategic triangle with China and the United States. It is also a US ally caught strategically between the two larger powers, yet it is approaching the strategic configuration differently from Japan. In this respect, Chung Jae-Ho’s 2007 book, Between Ally and Partner: Korea-China Relations and the United States, has provided a pioneering treatment of interactions between South Korea and China, which had previously been little examined. The gradual development of bilateral ties from purely economic cooperation toward greater (if still limited) diplomatic and security interactions has injected another variable into the region’s strategic dynamics, affecting ROK-US and ROK-Japan relations as well as the overall Northeast Asian quadrilateral. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Seoul’s priority has been to maintain strategic ambiguity and avoid having to make a definitive choice between China and the United States, although many, including in China, assume that the US alliance and national identity overlap gives it a clear edge. South Korea’s policy parameters are largely determined by the convergence in strategic interests of the two powers, although this becomes increasingly difficult to the extent that Sino-US relations become more confrontational.

Comparisons of the Japan-China-US and ROK-China-US triangles further demonstrate the value of triangular analysis. Yahuda’s comprehensive coverage of Sino-Japanese ties from the political, economic, and identity perspectives provides a basis for comparison with the Sino-South Korean case. As he discusses, Tokyo continues to perceive strategic rivalry with Beijing in the realm of bilateral security interactions, national identity, and broader foreign policies toward other countries and regional institutions. In contrast, Seoul is usually closer with Beijing on issues of historical and identity distrust toward Japan, and lacks the same sense of great power rivalry that Tokyo has. Furthermore, South Korea does not have a parallel territorial dispute with China (making less of the Ieodo issue, whereas it has one with Japan over Dokdo/Takeshima), meaning that it does not perceive an imminent security or military threat from Beijing. Rather, fluctuations in strategies toward China (as well as the United States) have been very much influenced by the degree of policy alignment on North Korea, which remains the overwhelming threat preoccupation for Seoul. Beijing had a similar preference for avoiding conflict, and its apparently positive contributions during the Six-Party Talks seemed to many South Koreans to contrast with Washington’s harsher rhetoric at times in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Of course, while economic ties may have been a key factor in rapid Sino-ROK rapprochement, Seoul’s relations with Beijing are not as simplistic as that. South Korea certainly also has realist considerations, with its shifting attitudes further facilitated by changes in domestic political leadership alongside conflicting national identity perceptions. In the last few years since Chung wrote his book, Seoul has become more wary of China, while anti-Americanism has waned. Events such as Beijing’s support of North Korea after the 2010 Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling incidents, identity clashes over the origins of the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo, and its recent declaration of an ADIZ that overlaps the disputed Korean submerged rock Ieodo, have correlated with a strengthening of the US-ROK alliance and increased distrust of China.

Thus, we need greater nuance in comparing the policy behavior of Japan and South Korea, beyond the dichotomous stereotype of a balancing Japan and bandwagoning South Korea (which again does not factor into positioning between two countries). There has been little sustained comparative analysis of Japanese and South Korean strategies, although each of these two countries is part of an important strategic triangle with the United States and China. The overly-broad concept of “hedging” via economic ties with China and security ties with the United States, while valid for both, does not adequately capture their similarities and differences, nor the degree of alignment and distancing over time. Asking how each will decide to manage a spectrum of possible responses within this framework, vis-a-vis strategic distancing from Beijing and strategic alignment with Washington, we need a closer assessment of factors shaping how countries choose to adapt to China’s rise while still depending on the US alliance. This allows us to draw lessons for other nations facing similar strategic dilemmas, as well as to realize the implications of how Washington can manage its Asian alliances alongside a broader regional strategy involving China.

In the strategic triangle framework, a closer alignment toward one larger power does not necessarily equate to greater distancing from the other. Since 2010, both Japan and South Korea have visibly and openly strengthened their alliance relationship with the United States, with successful bilateral meetings at the political and working levels in the past year. Yet, in contrast to Tokyo’s open criticisms of unilateral Chinese attempts to use force to change the status quo, Seoul continues to waver between moderate and minimal distancing from Beijing. While high-level Sino-Japanese meetings have essentially been frozen, President Park Geun-hye held a successful summit with Xi Jinping in June 2013. As Tokyo publicly called on Beijing to repeal its East China Sea ADIZ and frantically scrambled to avoid visible differences with Washington, Seoul attempted to quietly request removal of the zone’s overlap with South Korea’s, underlining the ROK preference to avoid conflict with China even at the potential expense of the United States and Japan.

One question is whether it is possible for such states, caught in the middle, to exit a zero-sum mentality. Particularly if the two larger powers are mutually antagonistic, hedging or attempting to find a middle ground risks offending at least one of them, if not both. As Chung Jae-Ho has suggested, South Korea is hoping to articulate a sort of middle power concept to create some breathing/maneuvering space beyond the bifurcation between the United States and China. Despite ongoing efforts to be a “Global Korea” and active middle power, an independent, mediating foreign policy role that Seoul has long desired has proved less and less feasible especially in the realm of hard security. At the same time, the United States and China are, to some extent, currently seeking more positive-sum relations, trying to articulate a compatible definition of what constitutes a “new type of major power relations.” Unfortunately for Tokyo at this point in time, it is in some sense competing with Beijing for US attention and favor, given its differing priorities on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. While Japan probably does not preclude dialogue with China (and has made previous attempts), hardline Chinese rhetoric merely locks in the positions of both sides. In contrast, Park’s ongoing attempts at trustpolitik and a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative suggest an intermediary approach embedding the US-ROK alliance in a more open multilateral framework, although its viability depends very much on the responses of the two powers. For both Japan and South Korea, policy strategy and behavior, will continue to tack right and left between China and the United States.

Given Japan and South Korea’s roughly parallel situations as US allies each in a triangle with China and the United States, what about Japanese-ROK ties as the final leg of the quadrilateral framework? This historically contentious historical relationship has broader spillover effects. Seoul-Tokyo tensions continue to complicate and entangle geopolitical calculations on all sides, leading to US frustration at both countries. Similar to what Yahuda highlights for the Sino-Japanese case, the uncertainties of political leadership and domestic politics will certainly introduce sporadic waves of national identity clashes. In this respect, democratization in both countries has worsened Japan-Korean relations by giving populist nationalist factions an institutionalized political voice, rather than the congruence of liberal ideals reducing bilateral national identity gaps. Harsh South Korean rhetoric on Japanese historical issues has weakened US-ROK ties, while giving China an opportunity to further isolate Tokyo. Tokyo has not had the foresight to give sufficient strategic thought to strengthening ties with Seoul or incorporating it more effectively into its foreign policy, particularly with regard to China. Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit and his administration’s backtracking on the comfort women issue have worsened the situation.

Moreover, there is little incentive to narrow the Japan-ROK gap because of differing threat perceptions: Japan worries about Chinese territorial assertiveness while South Korea sees the North Korean issue to be far more salient than low-level EEZ spats in the Yellow Sea—and each turns to the US alliance as the preeminent security guarantor. With little effort or vision between Tokyo and Seoul to sustainably improve bilateral relations, this inconsistent Japan-ROK leg is the weakest link from the American perspective. Washington is vexed by the inability of its crucial Asian allies to forge closer trilateral cooperation, leading to a still-missing US-Japan-ROK alliance triangle. The absence of this potentially stabilizing element increases the chances of friction between the Japan-China-US and ROK-China-US triangles. This situation is likely to persist unless Seoul starts to perceive more imminent, concrete, and local security threats from China, be it reescalation of direct territorial disputes or hegemonic actions that undermine much-prized Korean identity and sovereignty over a reunified peninsula. If, however, Beijing continues seeking to drive a wedge between Japan and its neighbors, as it did by downplaying the Ieodo dispute after furor over overlapping ADIZs, this Northeast Asian quadrilateral will remain relatively fractured.