Can Japan Weather a China-U.S. Cold War?

The smartest thing Henry Kissinger wrote was that, in describing the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War, “The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision…Of course, over time, even two armed blind men can do enormous damage to each other, not to speak of the room.” Even if the confrontation between China and the United States does not rise to the level of the Cold War (yet), with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address on July 23, he made explicit the Trump administration’s belief that engagement with China has failed and that the United States is locked in an existential, ideological conflict with a communist country that he thinks the United States can win only by coercing change in Chinese behavior. Both countries have already done damage to the other and more will come.

Needless to say, this is a precarious situation for Japan. The resignation towards increasing conflict between China and the United States is almost dogmatic, even as countries in the Asia-Pacific try to hedge between the two powers or try to squirm out from under their insistence that everyone needs to take a side. Japan is no different in this regard. It’s a crude simplification, but Japan has sought to engage with China economically while carefully asserting its interests against China’s territorial incursions, taking careful steps in one sphere to avoid undercutting its own interests in the other sphere. It’s a difficult balancing act with the practical result being that Japan – like most countries with relationships with a large country like China – doesn’t have a single China policy but several, engaging in some areas (like economics) and pushing back in others (like territorial disputes). However, this is not the preferred approach of the Trump administration.

Japan – like most countries – doesn’t have a single China policy, but several. But this isn’t the Trump administration’s preferred approach

China clearly poses a challenge to its neighbors and to the global order, but Pompeo’s address described a strawman. As Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC has said, the administration (and China hawks in general) imagines a China that is simultaneously 10-feet tall and also about to collapse – a perception that will make just about everything worse, entrenching Xi Jinping’s sense of threat and deepening the Communist Party’s defensive behavior. 

Factually, the dispute outlined by Pompeo is on weak ground as well. The Trump administration continues to blame China for a pandemic that they have essentially given up fighting. Meanwhile, rather than being a free rider, China faced unique conditions to join the World Trade Organization that were the most strict ever imposed on an applicant and has as good a compliance record with WTO arbitration decisions as any member of the group. But China’s government has made significant moves toward intellectual property theft, and the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs is due more to the spread of automation than to trade with China.

If the U.S grievance is moral, then better not to parse the moral credibility of an administration that claims the mantle of the free world when it’s willing to use tear gas against protesting mothers or break up families and lock children away as a deterrent to immigration. The U.S. dispute with China is ideological only insofar as Xi Jinping’s regime is trying to contain liberal ideology to avoid regime collapse. Chinese leadership is certainly not benign in pursuing that containment, but it has nowhere near the global ambitions that took the Soviets into every continent.

To be sure, there are immediate and legitimate concerns that need to be addressed about China’s role in the international system – to use U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s line, China is “not an exotic version of Canada” – but these aren’t the charges that the Trump administration making or trying to solve. Even the most troubling aspect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, the reports of repression of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, feels more like rhetorical window dressing than an urgent concern.

Trump’s approach has more sympathy in the Japanese government than many may expect. During the 2016 presidential election, Japanese decisionmakers would privately confess that they worried that Hillary Clinton would be too soft on China and favored what they thought would be Trump’s tougher approach. According to an article by an anonymous official in the Japanese government, those in the Abe administration essentially believe Trump’s approach of threats and brinksmanship is more appropriate to meet China’s approach instead of the “responsible stakeholder” framework that was common to Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama.

They should be careful what they wish for. The role of hawks, like those who have coalesced in Washington to dominate the U.S. policy debate on China, is to compress these multifaceted approaches –  like that which Japan is pursuing – into a single confrontational approach that crosses all dimensions of the relationship. Yet Trump’s brinksmanship hasn’t succeeded in curbing China’s ambitions, having only secured grain purchases to help boost Trump’s chances for reelection. The U.S. campaign to isolate China has isolated the Trump administration and overplayed a weak hand. Officials in the Abe administration may respect the Trump administration’s “toughness,” but should also recognize that being tough has accomplished very little.

Abe administration may respect the Trump administration’s “toughness” but should recognize that being tough has accomplished very little

A useful template for understanding Trump’s goals towards China would be U.S. policy towards Iran in terms of the delegitimization and isolation of the regime, a freeze on almost all political, economic, and cultural engagement, and certain targeted sanctions. Meanwhile, the constant “othering” against its diaspora population in the United States only leads to further xenophobia. It should be pointed out that this policy towards Iran has been unsuccessful with cautious engagement being the only approach which has produced any tangible results in reducing tensions in the region. Unlike Iran, where U.S. pressure is a proxy for regional rivalries against the Islamic Republic, the United States is mostly alone in its run towards an all-encompassing pressure campaign against China – which incidentally suits China’s leadership since it undermines the U.S. alliance system in East Asia.

Though a hypothetical Biden administration may not be nearly as alarmist about China as the Trump administration, it would manage U.S. relationships in the region and confrontation with China more conventionally. In other words, a potential Biden administration will be better focused on containing potential security challenges and on replacing Trump’s unilateral approach with a multilateral one that coordinates and focuses interests as a region. This isn’t necessarily to say that a Biden administration would be “better” for Japan in terms of U.S. relations with China, but it would at least be closer to Japan’s goals and methods.

The broader question is the conditions under which a future administration will be able to normalize relations with China after Trump’s confrontationism since Pompeo’s speech seems to have set the benchmark at nothing less than the end of one-party rule in China – needless to say, this would be a nonstarter for the Communist Party. Yet this speech will have established the benchmark for the Republican position and for the community of China hawks in Washington going forward and any moves towards easing tensions will face this headwind, just as Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran drew intractable opposition from Republicans. And like the Iran nuclear deal, Chinese leadership will understand any potential agreement will last only as long as the incumbent administration.

Japan could theoretically act as a mediator, but it’s difficult to mediate when one side sees the other either as evil or as determined to topple their regime. Japan doesn’t necessarily need to hedge either – as Giulio Pugliese of King’s College points out, Japan could even benefit from China-U.S. confrontation since it would allow Tokyo to negotiate from a position of strength by giving Japanese policymakers space to reevaluate their China policies in order to join the United States in confronting China on issues of common concern, notably regarding technology and maritime incursions.

In other words, Japan is acting strategically while the Trump administration throws a tantrum, emphasizing toughness over strategy. Japan can leverage its alliance with the United States to deter Chinese incursions in the East China Sea while engaging economically and politically with China in ways the United States will find more difficult. Japan can’t solve the dispute for them – nor should it try – but it should be able to manage its own interests relatively successfully as the two blind fighters settle in for their bout.

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Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

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