Sino-Japanese Review

Lonely Times for Japan’s “Panda Huggers”

Welcome to instalment XXIX of the Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column that provides running commentary on major developments, current events, and the evolution of China and Japan relations.

The summit between Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden in April demonstrated Japan’s commitment to stand by its ally and endorse, to some extent, Washington’s tough rhetoric towards China. However, this endorsement was not full-throated and Suga also emphasized the importance of maintaining a stable relationship with Beijing. As we have noted previously, Japan’s policy on China can be characterized as balanced yet pragmatic as it combines criticism and push-back in the security and strategic sphere along with engagement in diplomatic and economic spheres.

Japan’s business community and senior politicians such as LDP secretary-general, Nikai Toshihiro are a major influence behind Japan’s position on maintaining stable relations with China despite flaring tensions in the East China Sea and growing concerns over China’s challenge to the “liberal international order.” For many Japanese companies access to the vast Chinese market is crucial and they have made sure their business interests are taken into account by the Suga administration. This pressure from stakeholders serves as a brake in aligning closer with Washington’s confrontational posture and prevents fundamental revisions to Japan’s China policy. But at the same time it is becoming harder for the “panda huggers” to make their case.

Chinese pressure tactics in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and its crackdown in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong has generated ill-will among the Japanese political class. This has led to a political climate that limits positive remarks about China which have ensured that discussions inside the LDP are dominated by hawkish lawmakers.

This has led to a political climate that limits positive remarks about China which have ensured that discussions inside the LDP are dominated by hawkish lawmakers

Public sentiment is a major challenge for advocates of engagement. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the public’s already unfavorable impression of China has worsened. For instance, 74 percent of Japanese people approve the government’s involvement in the stability of the Taiwan Strait in spite of China’s reaction. Meanwhile, according to an annual public poll, the number of Japanese people who answered that relations with China were “important” fell to an all-time low of 64 percent. Advocates of engagement can take comfort in the fact that, according to the same poll, only 14 percent of respondents believed Japan would take the U.S. side against China. The proportion of respondents who saw economic ties as mutually beneficial did not decrease. However, it’s worth pointing out that the number was not very high to start with (only a quarter of respondents), and smaller than the percentage of those who see economic relations as competitive (close to four in ten).

Public support for greater economic ties therefore is tepid at best. This is perhaps a natural reaction to a news environment that tends to highlight the risks of “trade dependence” on China, as well as the vulnerability that comes from overtly concentrated supply chains for essential goods and concerns over Chinese dominance of new technologies. The Suga administration is launching several policies to answer these concerns by cooperating with the U.S. and other ‘Quad’ members. But this will undoubtedly cause friction with Beijing in the economic sphere, further complicating the task for defenders of engagement.

Another looming obstacle is a weakening of the pro-China faction’s political clout and internal coherence. Nikai Toshihiro, the most prominent pro-China figure, is known for his influence within the LDP and his extensive network of connections. He played a key role in helping Suga gain power. But he is at risk of seeing his star status tarnished as the Suga administration comes under intense criticism over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and its highly unpopular determination to press on with the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer.

What’s more, at 82 years old, Nikai is nearing the end of his political career and it is unclear who will fill his shoes as the flag-bearer of the pro-China faction. One potential candidate, former Abe advisor Imai Takaya, recently left politics to join the private sector. Meanwhile, the Japanese government’s efforts to build robust supply chains independent of China would create a constituency with little stake in the maintenance of good ties and thus weaken the cohesion of Japanese economic circles in their defense of engagement.

Hawkish voices are likely to continue to dominate the political conversation as the advocates of cooperation based on economic grounds struggle to push back. There are other reasons for preserving good relations with Beijing besides the lure of the Chinese market, of course. Stable ties between East Asia’s two biggest powers are an objective worth pursuing in and of itself, and both countries have repeatedly stated their awareness of the global geopolitical significance of their relationship. Japan’s post-WWII prudence and suspicion of foreign entanglements will continue to act as a barrier against blindly following Washington. Yet, China may find that the lure of profits is not in itself sufficient to prevent more incremental steps toward a more assertive Japanese stance.

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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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