Sino-Japanese Competition and Its Multilateral Implications

While eyes are fixed on the Sino-US competition in East Asia, there is also a competition for influence between China and Japan. In the decade of the 2000s, this centered mostly on Northeast Asia (over the terminus of an oil pipeline across Russia, South Korea’s role in the +3 meetings of ASEAN+3, etc.), and this area continues to be the object of their maneuvering despite China’s increasing edge. In the 2010s, however, China and Japan are more vigorously jostling for advantage in Southeast Asia and even India, as seen in the back-to-back summits this month of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Xi Jinping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Covering both Southeast and Northeast Asia with an emphasis on perceptions in both China and Japan and adding analyses focused on US thinking about how this competition is playing out in Vietnam, this Special Forum concentrates on multilateral implications of the deepening rift between Japan and China.

There has been considerable interest in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations, including the history issue and territorial dispute. Their triangle with the United States draws close scrutiny for its strategic significance. What is often missing is attention to how both China and Japan are visualizing competition in neighboring areas of East Asia. Many Chinese articles approach security challenges in Northeast Asia through the prism of Japan’s negative presence. Similarly, numerous Japanese articles highlight China’s negative impact when discussing security matters in Southeast Asia. We start this Special Forum with articles assessing how each side has been perceiving the other’s significance in this regional context. Then, we turn to the case of Vietnam for an American analysis of how the Sino-Japanese competition is unfolding. Elsewhere in this journal, we have been following other triangles involving China and Japan, emphasizing bilateral relations with one or the other of these countries, e.g., Japan-Russia and China-Russia relations and India-Japan and India-China relations. This Special Forum offers a framework for interpreting the triangular contents of these specific pairings in the middle of the 2010s.

The general nature of the Sino-Japanese competition in Asia can be grasped quite easily.
China is determined to isolate Japan, branding it a pariah for its historical revisionism, territorial policies, and militarization. Japan is striving to contain China, believing that its rise means hegemonic domination of Asia, insistence on a sinocentric worldview, and use of economic leverage coupled with rapidly growing military power for expansionism. In place of a “win-win” outcome, as both benefited from a dynamically growing region and bilateral economic integration, their future is now perceived as a “win-lose” competition, in which the stakes are the security architecture, economic regionalism, and the balance of the civilizational narrative in the Asia-Pacific. The struggle between them is playing out in discussions within each country on how to assess the bilateral relationship, as well as in the responses in countries on the frontlines of their diplomatic efforts. This can be seen in South Korea, where institution-building for trilateralism has been concentrated and in Southeast Asia, where ASEAN has aspired to managing the Sino-Japanese rivalry and various countries have been buffeted by its cross-currents. Every indication is that in the current decade, Sino-Japanese competition across the region will continue to intensify, but our effort is guided by questions that leave open the possibility of another outcome.

We begin this exploration of the multilateral implications of the conflict between the two East Asian powers with four questions. First, looking at narratives appearing in the two adversaries about their competition in East Asia, do we find any grounds for optimism that the intensity of the conflict will diminish? If so, how? Second, is there any prospect for multilateral management of the competition within East Asia? If so, how? Third, how is the role of the United States in this struggle in Southeast Asia and South Korea viewed by the two adversaries and by countries on the frontline? Finally, what is the prognosis over the next five years or so for how the Sino-Japanese conflict will unfold in the surrounding areas? The articles that follow vary in which of these questions they address, but this introduction summarizes the overall findings.

Chinese and Japanese narratives: Do they offer any basis for optimism?

Until recently, the Japanese narrative was inherently hopeful. On the progressive side there continues to be a tendency to find a light at the end of the tunnel, recently in the slight prospect of a serious meeting between Abe and Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing. Others are also closely following the ups and downs in signals that might lead to such a meeting, but find no reason to think that, even if it occurred, there would a real reversal in the downward spiral in bilateral relations. The Rozman article traces how Japan’s views of Southeast Asia are increasingly shaped by a sense of rivalry with China in that region, eschewing optimism that a win-win atmosphere is possible. In ASEAN, Japanese now see a bulwark against Chinese hegemonism, not a force capable of managing great power relations in a manner that could satisfy both Japan and China.

In the Cheng Xiaohe article, many Chinese publications are reviewed for what they tell us about attitudes toward Japan, emphasizing Northeast Asia. Whatever the issue, the image is of an irreconcilable conflict entirely due to Japan and to its supporting role in the US strategy to contain China. There is no optimism about Japanese politics, Sino-Japanese direct relations, or the impact of Japanese relations with other countries on ties to China. Articles simplistically and mechanically link Japanese politics and refusal to accept the defeat in World War II with its policies, even charging that they pose a threat to China’s peaceful development and raise the specter of war. Such inflammatory commentaries by leading specialists on Japan suggest no way forward except a full surrender by Japan on disputed issues. A top-down narrative demonizing Japan is in unquestioned ascendancy.

Are there any grounds for optimism for Sino-Japanese cooperation in East Asia?

Economically, they may draw closer as part of a wider regional agreement, e.g. RCEP. After all, neither side wants to undermine the trade benefits they have realized together. Already, Japanese FDI to China has fallen sharply, indicating a new stage in economic relations, as Japan turns its attention more to Southeast Asia and India. Yet, this does not mean that both sides are not keen on putting a floor under the downward tendency. Views on the overall relationship rarely suggest that either side should directly put in jeopardy their economic cooperation. If South Korea gains an edge through a CK FTA or Japan is seen as reorienting its economic ties through TPP, then there will be new incentives.

Beyond the economic rationale, it is hard to see any basis for optimism. Strategic goals are increasingly at odds. Civilization narratives are growing more mutually antagonistic. There is no sign of a common threat or common cause that will reverse these trends. On the Korean Peninsula, in Southeast Asia, and on Taiwan, they have clashing objectives. US, Russian, and other great power interests are unlikely to facilitate reconciliation. In both countries, there is no political or academic force that is making the case for a change of course, and economic interest groups are no longer seen as pressing for this as before.

Is there any prospect for multilateral management of Sino-Japanese competition?

In the 2000s, ASEAN+3 and the Six-Party Talks were welcomed as multilateral forces that could play a constructive role in Sino-Japanese relations, and in 2011 in Seoul, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat was established, suggesting that South Korea could be a mediating or balancing force for China and Japan. None of these organizations served to counteract a deteriorating bilateral relationship. The heyday of talk about joining in the East Asian Community and Chinese “new thinking” toward Japan in 2001-2003 preceded a sharp slide in Sino-Japanese relations in 2005. The hopes of the Joint Agreement in 2007 in the Six-Party Talks, which accompanied the warming in relations of 2007-2008, did not prevent the sharp downturn in Sino-Japanese ties in 2010. Trilateralism started on the eve of the further plunge in relations of 2012. There is no indication that multilateralism in the hands of ASEAN, South Korea, or any other driving force is able to overcome this.

US leadership is the remaining possibility for a new multilateral approach. Should US relations with China be markedly better than Japan’s relations with China, there may be a US initiative to lessen the danger of conflict in East Asia. Given Chinese assertiveness toward Japan and Japanese fears of abandonment, this would not be easy. Beijing would want to use such triangularity to drive a wedge between the two allies, and it is resistant to triangular venues in which the line-up would be two against one. While a successful US role in narrowing the Sino-Japanese divide is doubtful, it is the one viable option.

What is the role of the United States in influencing the course of this struggle?

Apart from joining in triangular reconciliation, the United States may influence the course of Sino-Japanese relations through bilateral policies toward the other two states. Japan may be striving for an independent Asian foreign policy—Abe’s abortive wooing of Putin, Abe’s far-reaching aspirations for a special relationship with India, and his call on Southeast Asia states to forge a close bond (as detailed in this Special Forum)—, but Japan is deceiving itself in this time of deepening polarization in thinking that there is room for a separate Japanese approach, based on identity or security, in the face of the Sino-US clash in Asia. Just as in the first four months of 2014, Barack Obama pressed Abe—with some success—to change course on South Korea, and in the next four months pressed him—with more success—to turn away from Vladimir Putin. In future scenarios demonstrating US strategic determination, Japan’s options are inherently circumscribed.

In 2008-2014, there has rarely been any distance between Washington and Seoul on strategic or identity issues, while there has been considerable distance between Washington and its ally in Tokyo on a number of occasions. With the announcement later this year of joint strategic guidelines, the divide is likely to narrow further. Obama’s unambiguous support for Japan in case of conflict over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands seemed in April to clear the air. There is no reason to expect that Sino-US relations will revert to the point that Xi Jinping can be taken seriously in his call for a “new type of major power relations.” Thus, as Sino-US relations set the overall framework for geopolitics and identity divides, Japan will be have little option or incentive to distance itself from what is transpiring.

What is the near-term prognosis for how the Sino-Japanese conflict will unfold?

Chinese writings range from a fringe view that war is not unlikely, leaving it unsaid that a clash at sea or in the air will be treated as Japan’s fault and met with Chinese escalation, to an implicit view that eventually, perhaps after Abe leaves office, Japan will agree that a dispute over territory exists and accommodate China’s interests. There is no public sign that China is prepared for another path forward. Japanese writings are less fatalistic about change in China’s approach and Japanese willingness to find some solution, given that a tendency to put some of the blame on Abe can be found in progressive circles. Yet, there is no groundswell for yielding to China’s basic demands, and pessimism is prevalent. The prospect of a meeting of Abe and Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in November is not treated as a game-changer, even if it is much desired as a step in the right direction.

The low-grade tensions over maritime space are likely to continue, creating a dangerous environment for escalation should an accident occur or should China decide that the time is ripe. Even if Abe and Xi hold direct talks, they are unlikely to bring significant change. Armed conflict is unlikely, beyond a possible accident accompanied by the threat of more serious confrontation. This state of troubled relations is what one should expect given the discourse in China on Japan and the corresponding hopelessness in Japanese discourse.

What are the implications of Vietnam’s responses for the Sino-Japanese rivalry?

Vietnam offers an ideal test of the way countries located on the front line of the Sino-Japanese rivalry will respond. On the one hand, it is one of the two states—along with the Philippines—with the most serious territorial dispute in Southeast Asia. As Mark Manyin explains, when this dispute is aggravated, Vietnam turns closer to Japan as well as the United States. Indeed, he observes, Japan is a less controversial target. On the other hand, China exerts a “pull” on Vietnam, which keeps limiting the degree to which it sustains such overtures. Vietnam’s political system limits efforts that might upset China, and its preference for “equidistance” following the debacle of leaning toward the Soviet Union has a similar effect. When one adds the economic costs of offending China, the case is made more compelling. Thus, Vietnam keeps walking a tightrope in dealing with China.

Manyin leaves the impression that China, far more than Japan, is the focus of Vietnam’s policy. Overlapping strategic interests with Japan have driven the two countries closer, but those are a function of China’s behavior. If Chinese assertiveness intensifies, closer ties with Japan can be expected. Manyin anticipates more and deeper cooperation. Japan is likely to be eager for this, but Vietnam may continue to exercise caution unless China directly increases its strategic threat. It may not have the same reservations about Japan as it does about the United States, but it also does not have as compelling strategic needs for strengthening ties with Japan as it has with the United States. Manyin concludes that for economic, ideological, strategic, and geographic reasons, Beijing remains Hanoi’s most important partner, and Hanoi calculates both how serious is the threat it poses and how China will react to any large-scale moves, including in the direction of the prime target of China’s hostility in the region. This conclusion suggests the need for sensitivity in recognizing how Vietnam is thinking rather than impatient pursuit of a closer strategic relationship—an argument that seemingly applies to US policy also.