Sino-Japanese Review

Washington’s Role in the Delicate China-Japan Balance

Welcome to installment XXII (October 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.

The Suga administration’s first diplomatic forays since taking office featured two contrasting diplomatic events, namely a Sino-Japanese phone call and a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting in Tokyo. On September 25, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide held a telephone conference with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping, in which both sides discussed future cooperation in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainties about the future of the international order. Both countries also pledged to move forward with regional trade pacts. In stark contrast to this cordial phone call, on October 6 Japan hosted the Foreign Ministers of India, Australia and the United States for a meeting of the ‘Quad’, a grouping whose raison d’être is rooted in shared concerns around China’s growing assertiveness.

These two events underline Japan’s continuing diplomatic balancing act which strives to maintain a cooperative approach with China, while also building a coalition of states aimed at balancing China’s growing power and opposing its destabilizing behavior. Despite its manifest displeasure at the prospect of the emergence of the Quad as an “anti-China” grouping, Beijing has not yet labelled it an obstacle to Sino-Japanese cooperation. In order to maintain this delicate balance, Japan and other Quad members will need to avoid outlining the group’s aims in relation to China’s behavior, while framing its agenda in broad terms of “international order maintenance”. Beijing would undoubtedly react poorly to an explicit declaration of intent to “gang up” against China.

Beijing would undoubtedly react poorly to an explicit declaration of intent to “gang up” against China

In this context, Washington’s current aggressive criticism of China is worrying. At the Quad meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a discordant voice, eager to emphasize the threat the CCP poses to the international community and he described the Quad as a vital mechanism in the struggle between an authoritarian China and the “free world.” These comments inevitably attracted condemnation from Chinese state representatives and state media.

In fact, Japan, India and Australia do share many U.S. concerns, and the enthusiasm of the latter two for the Quad has grown along with the deterioration of their relations with Beijing. Yet none of them wishes to completely cut bridges or to be roped in an U.S. “containment” effort. The absence of a joint communique at the end of the Tokyo Quad meeting probably reflects their reluctance to endorse the rhetoric currently coming out of the White House.

The absence of a joint communique at the end of the Tokyo Quad meeting probably reflects their reluctance to endorse the rhetoric currently coming out of the White House

The ambivalence of Japan and its other partners is a reminder of the risks associated with the United States’ excessively confrontational stance. Commentators have pointed out how Japan welcomed the Trump administration’s tough diplomatic attitude compared to that of the previous Obama administration, which was deemed too willing to accommodate Beijing for the sake of cooperation in areas such as climate change. Yet, there can be too much of a good thing and one must wonder how comfortable Japanese policy-makers are with the idea, promoted by Washington, of a Manichean struggle with the CCP.

The question may soon become moot if, as polls suggest, Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election by a wide margin. Many policy makers in Tokyo and elsewhere in Asia remain unsure of Biden’s commitment to stand fast against China’s assertiveness. Yet all signs seem to point toward a change of tone rather than substance if a Biden administration were to succeed the current Trump administration in January next year. There are now very few voices in Washington advocating a return to the paradigm of engagement.

A change of tone might be just what Japan is looking for. A new president eager to coordinate with allies and partners and ready to demand firmly but politely that China changes its objectionable behavior would represent the best of both worlds. It would allow Tokyo to pursue its own diplomatic overtures to Beijing while also supporting its efforts at coalition-building to resist China’s assertiveness. The paradigm shift brought about by the Trump administration may have been welcomed in Japan, but the downsides of “America First” are significant. It has outlived its usefulness.

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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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