The latest GENRON poll confirms that Sino-Japanese relations are souring. This trend began as early as 2005 according to the GENRON data but an argument could be made that from a historical point of view, Sino-Japanese relations have been cautious if not guarded, with Japan being consistent in a buffering approach when it comes to Sino-Japanese relations.
As far as the Japanese are concerned, contemporary explanations for these sentiments are rooted in the perception that China continues to exploit historical tragedies for political purposes. Despite obliging and conciliatory post World War II behavior, ODA and other assistance, China continues to criticize Japan for being unrepentant and unapologetic for its imperial past. It also has sincere concerns over China's military expansion and intentions in the East and South China Seas.
Prime Minister Abe is keenly aware of the challenge China's re-emergence as the largest economic, political and security force in the region is for Japan's political, economic and security. They also have understood that Japanese geographic position, economic links in the region, history and rivalry with China dictate that Japan cannot isolate itself from China or the region and it cannot escape the propensities facing the region. Reading these propensities, Prime Minister Abe and his foreign policy team have chosen a foreign policy approach that these maximizes opportunities based on this propensities. This essay argues that rather than openly competing with China economically, politically or militarily, Japan’s approach is a return to Japan’s historical approach of buffering and nullifying ( 防范/Fángfàn/ 予防) China to enjoy the benefits of trade relations but avoid a relationship that is too close in which China could dominate Japan in the economic, political or security spheres. The term balancing and hedging are intentionally not used in the context of this essay as they convey the sense that Japan is "conducting business as usual" with China instead of what I argue is a reorientation of relations at several levels to maintain autonomy and embed its presence and influence in the region and globally through shared norms, economic statecraft and the bolstering of multilateral security networks.
The trajectory of future relations
It appears that Japanese foreign policy under Prime Minister Abe is returning to its traditional relationship with China first established after the massive cultural infusion Japan enjoyed in the Tang Dynasty. The legacy of this period of exchange is seen in the writing system that Japan uses, the architecture that Japanese enjoy, in city planning and many other political, economic and cultural areas. Another lasting legacy of this exchange is an approach to China that neither attempts to isolate itself from China nor to engage it as equals.
Japan, having understood its precarious position vis-à-vis China as early as the 9th century found it prudent to buffer and nullify (防范/Fángfàn/予防) itself against the power and might of the Sino-centric system by distancing itself from the cultural, political and economic largess of ancient China. Returning to this one thousand years old, well-practiced statecraft can ensure Japan avoids an arms race with China, maintain its post World War II pacifist tradition and continue engaging with China on its own terms while not being vulnerable to China's size and the influence that comes with that size.
Today, Japanese foreign policy makers seem to be applying a similar choice vis-à-vis China. We can see this at several different levels including economic, political and security relations. At the economic level, Japan is both engaging and reorienting its interactions with China to secure market access, to dampen the potential for political friction affecting Japanese business profits and avoid being dominated by the expansion of the Chinese market. It is doing this at several levels. First, as a result of anti-Japanese sentiments following territorial incidents in 2005, 2010 and 2014 which negatively impacted Japanese businesses in China, Japanese business have shifted their manufacturing strategy to one in which the Chinese production network was a platform for global exports of Chinese made Japanese products to one in which products are made in China by Chinese for Chinese with Japanese technologies. This strategy enables Japanese businesses to continue to profit from the Chinese market while importantly it insulates them from the potential problems associated with souring Sino-Japanese relations like we witnessed following the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.
The second level has been an incremental and accelerated investment through ODA and FDI and proactive diplomacy into ASEAN. Slowly, ASEAN countries and in particular but not only Vietnam are playing a larger and more important role for Japanese manufactures. What we are seeing is Southeast Asian countries becoming the production site for Japanese products for global export including to other Southeast Asian countries. The second level in this shift has taken in consideration the increased costs of doing business in China and political risk associated with Sino-Japanese relations.