Sino-Japanese Review

Japan’s China Policy: Pragmatism or Improvisation?

Welcome to installment XXXII of the Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column covering major developments in relations between China and Japan. It provides a running commentary on the evolution of the relationship and aims to put current events in perspective.

In recent years, Japan’s China policy has been characterized by a pragmatic mixture of diplomatic and economic engagement and a more confrontational stance on security and geopolitical issues. Former prime minister Abe Shinzo is largely credited with striking this delicate balance after returning to power in 2012 and successfully stabilizing Sino-Japanese relations without giving ground on territorial issues. This year, Abe’s successor and current PM Suga Yoshihide has presided over a shift toward a more confrontational attitude toward Japan’s largest neighbor. But, is Abe’s pragmatism and Suga’s more assertive posture the expression of a well thought-out strategic vision or rather something closer to ad hoc improvisation in response to the needs and opportunities of the moment?

The first meeting between Abe and Xi Jinping took place in November 2014 at an APEC summit in Beijing, two years after the breakdown of relations following Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu. The real turning point came at the Belt and Road Forum of May 2017, when Abe, in a hand-delivered letter, expressed a willingness to support China’s flagship initiative. This opened the way for mutual state visits and a “normalization” of diplomatic relations. However, a special investigation by the Asahi Shimbun into the politics and foreign policy of the Abe administration has shown that the decision to adopt a cooperative posture was not an object of consensus within the Cabinet. Rather, it was the result of a last-minute decision by Abe to side with the more dovish members of his teams without warning the more hawkish ones.

Japan’s individual policy moves were driven more by domestic political considerations and Abe’s personal relations with his advisors than any grand design for Japanese foreign policy

The Asahi Shimbun investigation suggests that, as Japan strove to find a balance between cooperation and confrontation with China, individual policy moves were driven more by domestic political considerations and Abe’s personal ties with his advisors than any grand design for Japanese foreign policy. One government official concludes that Abe was a skillful statesman who shined on the international stage but lacked strategic vision. The former prime minister sensed that a balanced coalition with like-minded democracies was necessary to respond to the rise of Chinese power, and that direct engagement with Beijing was equally crucial to foster the stable international environment in which Japan could prosper. However, Japan’s response to a number of challenges remains unclear. Abe struggled to use the “Quad” and  a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a source of leverage rather than a source of tension with China. His administration found it challenging to insulate Japanese business interests from geopolitical tensions and balancing relations with Beijing and Washington at a time of rising animosity between the two. Abe’s embrace of cooperation on the Belt and Road and economic matters also did little to ease Chinese pressure on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, or to improve the poor opinion that most Japanese citizens hold of the Xi regime.

In the last two years these conditions have allowed various domestic actors to try and orient Japan toward a more assertive China policy, again seemingly without much overall strategic design. Lawmakers have pushed for punitive measures in response to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and have called for more action to counter the Chinese vessels regularly dispatched to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Meanwhile, in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic officials backed by then-Cabinet Secretary Suga, sought to divert supply chains for medical and other essential goods away from China. Defense officials have also grown more vocal in expressing concerns about the future of Taiwan. At the U.S-Japan summit in Washington in April, Suga endorsed relatively tough language on China, signaling a shift away from cooperation and toward more confrontation. But he has yet to spell out his vision for Japanese foreign policy and appears to be largely responding to U.S. pressure and to the current dominance of hawkish voices in Tokyo.

In the last two years these conditions have allowed various domestic actors to try and orient Japan toward a more assertive China policy, again seemingly without much overall strategic design

All this suggests that Japan could be stumbling towards a more frictional relationship with Beijing. With an absence of deliberate strategic reassessment, it’s unlikely the consequences and trade-offs that this could entail have really been thought through. This creates a number of concerns such as whether the Japanese economy can reduce its dependence on China considering that many Japanese companies remain eager to tap into its vast market and sophisticated production networks. What’s more, both countries have just signed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is likely to further anchor China at the center of the regional supply chains of East Asia. Does Japan have the tools to deal with the kind of economic and political retaliation that Beijing is known to impose on states who “provoke” it? Another pending question is whether Japan will be able to counter new potential escalations by China in the East China Sea in response to Japan’s closer cooperation with the U.S. in defense of the disputed territory. More importantly, is Japan truly ready to commit to the defense of Taiwan in case of an attempt at reunification by force?

Answering these questions requires a deeper understanding of China’s intentions, capabilities and where relations with China fit within Japan’s broader goals in East Asia. There are concerns in Tokyo that such knowledge is currently lacking. For instance, two prominent Japanese China experts recently noted that the number of comprehensive analyses on Beijing’s growing power available to policymakers is limited, which makes it difficult to develop an effective long-term strategy and to mobilize the resources needed to counter Beijing’s excesses in its pursuit of “national rejuvenation”. 

Patience and a long-term vision is essential if Tokyo hopes to persuade Beijing that changing its attitude on territorial disputes or human rights issues is in its best interests. But neither Abe nor Suga has shown interest in thinking along these lines.

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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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