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June 2022

China Trends #13:
China Weighs Japan’s Blowback Against Its Own Actions

Viviana Zhu
China analyst, former Research Fellow, Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program

Viviana Zhu was Research Fellow at Institut Montaigne until January 2023. Prior to that, as Coordinator of the Asia Program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Viviana  was responsible for event coordination, reporting, and research support.

Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is a Resident Senior Fellow for Asia at Institut Montaigne, and director of International Studies.

Dr. Shinji Yamaguchi
Senior Research Fellow in the NIDS

Dr. Shinji Yamaguchi is a Senior Research Fellow in the Regional Studies Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Ministry of Defense, Japan, located in Tokyo, and was a Visiting Scholar at Sigur Center for Asian Studies of George Washington University. He specializes in Chinese politics, China’s security policy, and contemporary Chinese history. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Keio University. His publications include "Strategies of China’s Maritime Actors in the South China Sea: A Coordinated Plan under the Leadership of Xi Jinping?" China Perspective, 2016 No.3, (October 2016), pp.23- 31; Mo Takuto no Kyokoku ka Senryaku (Mao’s Grand Strategy to Build Strong Country) Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2021. He is a co-author of the NIDS China Security Report 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018.


Introduction - Mathieu Duchâtel
Security Competition: China’s Alarm on the Rise - Shinji Yamaguchi
Economic Security in China-Japan Relations: the Balance Sheet - Mathieu Duchâtel
50 Years of PRC-Japan Diplomatic Relations: in Search for Optimism - Viviana Zhu


China Trends seeks understanding of China from Chinese language sources. In an era where the international news cycle is often about China, having a reality check on Chinese expressions often provides for more in-depth analysis of the logic at work in policies, and needed information about policy debates where they exist. China Trends is a quarterly publication by Institut Montaigne’s Asia program, with each issue focusing on a single theme.


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.


Security Competition: China’s Alarm on the Rise

Yamaguchi Shinji, Senior Research Fellow in the Regional Studies Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies

Security tensions in China-Japan relations are a defining component of the East Asian security order. Since the advent of the Abe administration (2012), Japan’s foreign policy has become more proactive, with an even closer US-Japan alliance and a more proactive attitude towards maintaining and building regional order by raising the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. It has also been more outspoken about the Taiwan issue and placed more emphasis on democratic values and human rights than before. How does China view these developments in Japan’s foreign and security policy? Yamaguchi Shinji, Senior Research Fellow in the Regional Studies Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies, explores the three dominant Chinese perceptions of Sino-Japanese relations, and their merits and limitations


Economic Security in China-Japan Relations: the Balance Sheet

Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of the Asia program

On May 11, the Japanese Diet (the national legislature) enacted the "Economic Security Promotion Bill", ​​providing a new framework to guide Japan’s policy on supply chain security, critical infrastructure, and innovation in strategic sectors. Although the new legislation does not explicitly target China, it is certainly crafted in response to the challenges posed by China. How do Chinese experts assess the impact of the legislation on China-Japan trade, investment and technology relations? Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne, reviews recent Chinese writings on Japan’s economic security legislation and how Japan’s government intervention in economic activities affects Chinese technology access interests.


50 Years of PRC-Japan Diplomatic Relations: in Search for Optimism

Viviana Zhu, Research Fellow at Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Due to the symbolic meaning attributed to the year 2022, there is an attempt from the Chinese side to create a positive atmosphere around China-Japan bilateral relations. Viviana Zhu, Research Fellow at Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program, unpacks some Chinese narratives on China-Japan trade relations as a strategic driver for the bilateral relationship. The attractiveness of China’s market and manufacturing power and Japan’s dependency on trading with China are factors that give Chinese experts some degree of confidence regarding the future of bilateral relations. However, the language and tone used while describing these positive aspects suggest a deeper skepticism regarding the capacity of trade dynamics to mitigate competition and distrust.

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