Sino-Japanese Review

Will Japan Stand by its “Realistic” Engagement with China?

Welcome to installment XVIII (June 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective. Previous installments may be found here.— 

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a rise in diplomatic acrimony between China, and the U.S, India, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada has taken centre stage around the world. European Union member states are also heading towards adopting a tougher attitude on the strategic challenge that China’s growing assertiveness represents, even as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell and other officials have emphasized the importance of preserving bilateral cooperation on issues of common concern.

As some of the world’s largest economies prepare for more confrontational ties with China, will Japan follow this general trend as well? In Japan’s case there is much less of a policy shift since its approach to diplomatic engagement together with strategic competition is already founded on a realistic assessment and familiarity with the potential threat that China’s rise could represent.

By the start of 2020, the Sino-Japanese diplomatic rapprochement which was initiated around 2017 was making steady headways, and was due to culminate with a visit to Japan by Xi Jinping in the Spring. The global coronavirus pandemic put a spanner in those plans. While Xi is still expected to make a state visit after November or early next year, some observers argue that recent moves by Tokyo to welcome Hong Kong-based business hint at a rethink of its approach toward China in line with the wave of cooling sentiment taking place internationally. However, on closer inspection this assessment seems premature.

First, if the Japanese government shares the frustrations held by some of its allies over China’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, it has not expressed it publicly. It did, however, join European countries at the World Health Organization general assembly last month in calling for an investigation into the organization’s response to the pandemic, but the bulk of this resolution was fairly mild, non-confrontational, and gained China’s backing as well. 

If Japan shares frustrations over China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, it has not expressed it publicly

Japan has also avoided forceful condemnations over China’s new controversial national security law which threatens to end Hong Kong’s autonomy. Japan did voice “serious concerns” on the matter, whereas China’s internment of some one million Muslim Uighurs in the Western region of Xinjiang in recent years has only merited expressions of “concern”. Japan steered clear from signing a highly critical joint statement in response to the Hong Kong security law with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo subsequently promised that Japan would take a leading role in drafting a G7 statement on China’s new security legislation, prompting China to express its own “grave concerns” over Tokyo’s attitude. It’s worth noting that Abe’s G7 announcement came in response to party members having voiced strong skepticism over the government’s plan to invite Xi Jinping and were seeing China’s undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy as another reason to adopt a much more confrontational attitude. Abe’s promise to work with other G7 countries on a common stance could be seen as a way to appease those critics without altering the government’s China policy. In fact, Japan has often been willing to respond to human rights abuses or other violations against international norms with its G7 allies even as it maintained a more cautious stance individually. Tokyo’s balancing act regarding Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 comes to mind.

Japan has often been willing to respond to human rights abuses in line with its G7 allies while maintaining a more cautious stance individually

Japan’s latest moves are consistent with past patterns, and don’t necessarily reflect a change in its China policy. In Western capitals, China’s growing assertiveness under Xi Jinping, its unwillingness to open its markets, its unabashed authoritarianism, and its prickly pride when faced with criticism have caused policymakers more broadly to lose some of their illusions over the extent to which Beijing is could be expected to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the current international order. 

Throughout the 1990’s, concerns began to grow that China could become a threat to Japan’s security and with maritime confrontations over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in both 2010 and 2012, a consensus had formed that China’s rise would be greatly disruptive.

Japan’s current engagement policy is thus on a stronger footing based on its realistic assessment of the challenges posed by China’s ambitions. Tokyo’s determination to maintain avenues for dialogue and cooperation do not curb its resolve to counter its neighbor as best it can in the realm of security and to compete with China for personnel placements in international organization’s such as the U.N. This mix of competition and engagement may be tweaked in the future, but it is unlikely to be abandoned unless Japan’s hand is forced by another security crisis in the East China Sea.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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