Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of the Asia program
Let’s start with a factual observation. For Europe, China policy in recent years has been less and less about the management of bilateral relations with China, and more and more about coordination and cooperation with allies and partners. This is an unavoidable outcome of the stalemate in EU-China relations, of domestic governance trends inside China under Xi Jinping’s leadership, and of the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait. Even the most optimistic European policymakers, which had been deeply convinced until most recently that a cross-strait war was unthinkable because "it would be too costly", are starting to take that risk seriously after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine.
This is an important context to watch China-Japan relations from Europe, and to pay attention to the Chinese experts’ views on Japan’s China policy. On the economic front, in the management of the security environment in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, but also in their ambition to shape the international order, Japanese policies provide a benchmark to assess Europe’s own actions, a source of inspiration to test ideas and improve our own policies, and an alarm call regarding the seriousness of East Asian security risks.
Beyond the deep people-to-people and business relations that tie together the Chinese and the Japanese societies, and taking into consideration the historical depth of rich cultural interactions and tragic wars, it is no exaggeration to state that Japan approaches China from the strategic viewpoint of Japan’s position in the international system, and not simply from the angle of market opportunities. China’s future choice with regards to war or peace in the Taiwan Strait, how China will handle its territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, whether China or the West will dominate the next wave of technology innovation, and the extent to which Chinese influence will expand in the Indo-Pacific region are vital questions for Japan’s existence as a peaceful and prosperous advanced industrial economy. This explains why Japan’s China policy is framed as part of a strategy for the future of the international order.
This issue of China Trends explores Chinese debates and perceptions in three policy areas.
First, security competition and the military domain often define the big picture of China-Japan relations. When President Biden visited Japan last May, China responded by jointly flying nuclear bombers with the Russian Air Force in Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. This was a crystal clear signal of China’s current threat perception vis-à-vis the US-Japan alliance and its central role in maintaining the East Asian status quo, which seen from Beijing constrains China’s strategic space. Yamaguchi Shinji’s piece shows important differences in Chinese analysis regarding Japan’s security policy, but also underlines that three broad agreements have surfaced. First, there is genuine alarm at Japan increasingly being an active player in deterring China from attacking Taiwan. Second, Chinese experts can only acknowledge that Japan is taking the initiative to build a coalition in the Indo-Pacific to resist China’s rise. And third, they note that Japan is increasingly vocal on human rights - but they are nevertheless unsure whether this is a deep and consequential transformation of a country traditionally less vocal than the West regarding abuses in China.
Second, Japan’s turn to greater government intervention in the technological race has recently culminated with the Kishida government adopting an economic security legislation. The legislation targets Japan’s supply chain security, plans increased protections against technology acquisition by military end-users, and injects new resources to boost innovation in strategic industries. Just like Europe’s "autonomous defensive instruments", Japan’s legislation is country-agnostic, but is mainly a response to China’s state capitalism. A minority of Chinese analysts describe Japan’s legislation as hostile and as a factor of increased distrust in China-Japan relations. One scholar even accuses Japan of seeking "absolute economic security", mirroring on purpose China and Russia’s accusations that the United States is seeking absolute security by undermining their nuclear deterrence. But the mainstream is elsewhere. Chinese experts are able to show understanding and to rationalize Japanese actions, which is a global leader in crafting new defensive measures to counter intangible technology transfers. Japan’s actions are both part of an international trend and a historical trend inside Japan. Some doubt the efficiency of Japan’s turn to economic security and the intensity of its impact on Chinese interests. One thing is clear. Those measures are targeted, and will not lead to full decoupling of the Chinese and the Japanese economies.
The third piece is a search for positive and optimistic Chinese views regarding the future of China-Japan cooperation. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, and the depth of China-Japan economic relations is not only stunning for its volume (bilateral trade was at US$ 372 billion in 2021), but it’s also been a major factor of growth and prosperity since China’s opening up. In each of the three pieces, there are always voices that question Japan’s long-term commitment to a course of strategic competition with China. This closing analysis by Viviana Zhu sees a lot of emphasis placed on the significance of RCEP, as a demonstration that the Japanese government is determined to pursue closer relations with China, in spite of everything. The tone of Chinese publications makes clear that optimism is contained, and for good reason. Asked by a Chinese military officer at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore about Japan’s plan for the 50th anniversary, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida simply provided a laconic reply that "more communication" was important.
The recent EU-Japan Summit was the occasion to define China policy as an issue of bilateral cooperation. The joint communiqué states that "we will deepen our exchanges on China, notably with regard to political, economic and security dynamics, including on the situation in Hong Kong as well as on human rights, including in Xinjiang". There is also a mention of "economic security" as an area of Europe-Japan cooperation, a notable development given how many European policymakers were until recently reluctant to adopt that terminology, which they saw as a direct attack on free market principles. But times change, and Japan’s patient diplomacy seems to have succeeded in persuading European interlocutors. On the trade, technology and investment agenda, cooperation with Japan can complement transatlantic relations, and to some degree balance the importance of the United States on Europe’s agenda. While China-Japan relations increasingly slide towards outward rivalry, Europe can also watch which economic gains are nevertheless preserved from politicization or securitization.