Are China and Japan on a Collision Course?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
At a conference sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun this past week, Michael Armacost, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, boldly stated that, "the [U.S.-Japan] alliance is alive and well, and is in the best shape it has been in recent history." He may be right, however, his contention is also misleading. While many Japanese may interpret Armacost's observation as evidence of a renewed respect for Japan as an American ally, the fact of the matter is that fewer government agencies, private and public institutions and media sources in the U.S. are interested in Japan proper. The importance of Japan in the eyes of U.S. government officials, academics and business people no longer resides with Japan's innate qualities and achievements (financial and technological prowess, democratic credentials, and geo-strategic location), which have long been the hallmarks of this trans-pacific alliance. Today, Japan is only appealing so long as it relates to the larger East Asian context, with particular emphasis on China.
The focus is on what U.S. newspapers, government statements and academic work characterize as an "age-old rivalry" over leadership in Asia between China and Japan. As far as American's are concerned, the Japanese have been caught flat-footed and out of steam while the momentum for the future lies with China.
Japan's continued importance within the framework of U.S. strategic goals relates to the fact that the present emphasis in the U.S. remains with controlling China instead of promoting its growth. For this America needs Japan's help. In the long-term, the dominant view is that China will retake what it feels is its rightful place as the leader of Asia, however, what makes the U.S.-Japan alliance critical today is the fact that both the U.S. and Japan do not want this to happen any time soon. Quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, a former Bush administration official said that, "it is not in the U.S. or Japan's interest to concede Asia to China, at least not yet" (Robert Marquand, "China gains on Japan in age-old rivalry for Asia influence," 29 October 2003). Judging from U.S. political commentary and academic understanding, the impact of China's heightening power comes not so much at the expense of the U.S. but rather at the expense of Japan's standing in the region, the world and with America.
An outcome of this has been Japan's fear that the U.S.'s commitment to Japan will increasingly wane as Japan's economy continues to flounder while China's flourishes. This, preoccupation is not entirely misplaced and has historical precedence. Many, such as Walter LeFeber (The Clash, W.W. Norton, 1997), have long argued that the U.S.'s real interest in Asia has always been in China and in its markets. Some readers may also remember that up until the success of the Communist revolution in China, U.S. strategic plans for the post-World War II era saw China as its main ally in the Far East and not Japan. As a result, the perception that the U.S. commitment to Japan is largely circumstantial and not necessarily a matter of principled national interest for the U.S., has cultivated a level of insecurity among Japanese conservative political groupings who see their domestic and international influence as contingent upon U.S. support and in some cases tolerance (i.e. for trade barriers). That many felt this way was evidenced during the early to mid-1990s when long-standing Japanese economic and political forces started complaining about America's "Japan passing". Indications that this tendency still persists, exists in Japan's never-ending attempt to prove its worth to the United States by actively supporting the U.S. political and economic agenda. Its commitment to give more money than any other country and send a symbolic contingent of troops to the occupation of Iraq, are the latest examples. As interest in Japan dissipates, mainstream Japanese political forces are actively trying to make themselves more relevant within the context of U.S. foreign policy.
What we must recognize, however, is that a U.S.-Japan alliance that feeds Japanese dependence and insecurity produces neither stability nor prosperity. That Japan's relevance in international politics is contingent upon its regional influence relative to that of China is also dangerous for it inevitably places Japan and China in a confrontational framework. Furthermore, this conceptualization inaccurately portrays the reality of relations between Japan and the PRC. Japanese government officials are optimistic about their relations with China, particularly with the arrival of Hu Jintao. Japan is happy to see a China that is starting to engage the world and one that recognizes the importance of Japanese investment and ODA. Japan is also encouraged by China's role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Cultural and educational ties continue to increase with over 50,000 Chinese students in Japan and more Japanese visiting the mainland. One of the implications of these two competing realities (one in the U.S. that sees Japan pitted against China and one in East Asia that identifies increasing cooperation between the two), is that the Japan of the 21st century must work hard to rethink its strategic role within East Asia and reconfigure its relationship with the United States into one that does not place it on a collision course with China. Furthermore, it must consider whether or not the current U.S.-Japan alliance serves the interest of Japan into the future or simply maintains the status-quo of the past.