China vs. Japan: Asia's Other Great Game

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) raise a Chinese national flag during the military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the army at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, July 30, 2017. China Daily via REUTERS

Beijing and Tokyo will undoubtedly compete long after U.S. foreign policy has evolved.

November-December 2017

For most of history, however, it would have seemed delusional to compare Japan with China. Island powers rarely can compete with cohesive continental states. Once China’s unified empires emerged, starting with the Qin in 221 BCE, Japan was dwarfed by its continental neighbor. Even during its periods of disunity, many of China’s fragmented and competing states were nearly as large, or larger than, all of Japan. Thus, during the half-century of the Three Kingdoms, when Japan’s Queen of Wa paid tribute to Cao Wei, each of the three domains, Wei, Shu and Wu, controlled more territory than Japan’s nascent imperial house. China’s natural sense of superiority was reflected in the very word used for Japan, Wa (倭), which is usually accepted to mean “dwarf people” or possibly “submissive people,” thus fitting Chinese ideology regarding other ethnicities in ancient times. Similarly, Japan’s geographical isolation from the continent meant that the dangerous crossing over the Sea of Japan to Korea was attempted only rarely, and usually only by the most intrepid Buddhist monks and traders. The early Chinese chronicles repeatedly introduced Japan as being a land “in the middle of the ocean,” emphasizing its isolation and difference from the continent. Long periods of Japanese political isolation, such as during the Heian (794–1185) or Edo (1603–1868) periods also meant that Japan was largely outside the mainstream, such as it was, of Asian historical development for centuries at a time.

The dawn of the modern world turned upside down the traditional disparity between Japan and China. Indeed, what the Chinese continue to call their “century of humiliation,” from the Opium War of 1839 to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, was largely contemporaneous with Japan’s emergence as the world’s first major non-Western power. As the centuries-old Qing dynasty and China’s millennia-old imperial system fell apart, Japan forged itself into a modern nation-state that would inflict military defeats on two of the greatest empires of the day, China itself in 1895 and czarist Russia a decade later. Japan’s catastrophic decision to invade Manchuria in the 1930s and fight both the United States and other European powers resulted in devastation throughout Asia. Yet even as China descended into decades of warlordism following the 1911 Revolution, and then the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists, Japan emerged from the vastation of 1945 to become the world’s second-largest economy.

Since 1990, however, the tide has reversed, and China has come to occupy an even more dominant global position than Tokyo could have imagined at the height of its postwar prominence. If international power can crudely be conceived of as a three-legged stool, comprising political influence, economic dynamism and military strength, then Japan only fully developed its economic potential after World War II, and even then lost its position after a few decades. Beijing, meanwhile, has come to dominate international political fora while building the world’s second most powerful military, and becoming the largest trading partner of over one hundred nations around the globe.

Yet in comparative terms, both China and Japan today are wealthy, powerful nations. Despite nearly a generation of economic doldrums, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy. It also spends roughly $50 billion per year on its military, boasting one of the world’s most advanced and well-trained defense forces. On the continent, with its audacious Belt and Road Initiative, free-trade proposals and growing military reach, China is widely considered the world’s second most powerful nation, after the United States. This rough parity is new in Japan-China relations, and has been perhaps the single greatest, if often unacknowledged, factor in their contemporary relationship. It is also the spur for the intense competition the two are waging in Asia.

COMPETITION BETWEEN countries does not inherently lead to aggression, or even particularly contentious relations. Indeed, looking at Sino-Japanese relations from the vantage point of 2017 may distort just how vexed their ties traditionally have been. For long periods of its history, Japan looked to China as a beacon in a sea of murk—as the most advanced civilization in Asia and as a model for political, economic and sociocultural forms. While at times that admiration was perverted into an attempt to assert equality, if not superiority, as during the Tang era (7–10 c.) or a millennium later, during the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns (17–19 c.), it would be a mistake to assume there was no positive element to the interaction between the two. Similarly, Chinese reformers understood that Japan had achieved success in modernizing its feudal system in the late nineteenth century to a degree that made it, for a while, a model. It was not an accident that the father of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, spent time in Japan during his exile from China in the first years of the twentieth century. Even after Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of China during the Pacific War, the 1960s and 1970s saw Japanese politicians such as Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei reach out to China, restore relations and even contemplate a new era of Sino-Japanese relations that would shape Cold War Asia.