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

Negative attitudes towards China on the part of Japanese business have been mirrored in the political and intellectual sphere. Japanese analysts have been concerned about the long-term implications of China’s growth for years, but such concerns turned into open worry, particularly once China’s economy overtook Japan’s, in 2011. Since the crisis in political relations caused by repeated incidents in the Senkaku Islands starting in 2010, policymakers in Tokyo interpreted Beijing’s actions as flexing newfound national muscle, and they grew frustrated with the United States for its seemingly cavalier attitude towards Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea. At one international conference in 2016, which I attended, a senior Japanese diplomat harshly criticized Washington and other Asian capitals for countering China’s expansion in Asian waters with nothing but rhetoric, and warned that it might soon be too late to blunt Beijing’s attempts to gain military dominance. “You don’t get it,” he repeated in unusually blunt language, decrying what he (and perhaps his superiors) saw as undue complacency about China’s encroachment throughout Asia. It is not difficult to get the sense that China is seen by some leading thinkers and officials as a near-existential threat to Japan’s freedom of action.

As for Chinese officials, they are all but dismissive of Japan and its future prospects. One leading academic told me that China already has more wealthy citizens than the entire population of Japan, so that there could be no competition between the two; Japan simply can’t keep up, he asserted, so its influence (and ability to oppose China) was doomed to evaporate. Similarly, a visit to one of China’s most influential think tanks revealed an almost monolithically negative view of Japan. Numerous analysts expressed their skepticism about Japan’s intentions in the South China Sea, perhaps revealing a concern for increased Japanese activity in the region. “Japan wants to get out from under the [postwar] U.S. system and end the alliance,” one analyst asserted. Another criticized Tokyo for “playing a disruptive role” in Asia, and for creating a loose alliance against China. Underlying many of these feelings among Chinese elite is a refusal to accept Japan’s legitimacy as a major Asian state, tinged with more than a little fear that Japan is the only Asian nation, along perhaps with India, that can prevent China from reaching certain goals, such as maritime dominance in Asia’s inner seas.

The sense of distrust between China and Japan reveals not only long-standing tensions, but also a window into the insecurities felt by both countries as they contemplate their respective positions in Asia. These insecurities and tensions combine to create the competition that each is waging against the other, even as they maintain extensive economic relations.

INCREASINGLY, CHINESE and Japanese foreign policies in Asia appear to be aimed at countering the influence—or blocking the goals—of each other. This competitive approach is taking place in the context of the deep economic interactions noted above, as well as the surface cordiality of regular diplomatic exchanges. In fact, one of the more direct clashes is taking place over regional trade and investment.

With its head start on economic modernization and postwar political alliance with the United States, Japan helped shape Asia’s nascent economic institutions and agreements. The Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB), founded in 1966, has always been led by a Japanese president, working closely with the American-dominated World Bank. The two institutions set most of the standards for lending to sovereign states, including expectations for political reform and broad national development. In addition to the ADB, Japan also expended hundreds of billions of dollars of official development assistance (ODA), starting in 1954. By 2003, it had disbursed $221 billion worth of aid globally, and in 2014, it still budgeted approximately $7 billion of ODA globally; $3.7 billion of this amount was spent in East and South Asia, mostly in Southeast Asia, and particularly in Myanmar. The political scientists Barbara Stallings and Eun Mee Kim have observed that overall, more than 60 percent of Japan’s overseas aid goes to East, South and Central Asia. Japanese assistance has traditionally been targeted for infrastructure development, water supply and sanitation, public health and human-resources development.

In contrast, China’s institutional initiatives and aid assistance traditionally lagged far behind Japan’s, even though it too began providing overseas aid in the 1950s. Scholars have noted that it has been difficult to evaluate China’s development assistance in part because of the overlap with commercial transactions with foreign countries. Moreover, over half of China’s aid goes to sub-Saharan Africa, with only 30 percent going to East, South and Central Asia.