Assessing the Future Trajectory of China-Japan Relations
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Assessing the Future Trajectory of China-Japan Relations

How are Chinese scholars assessing what role Japan might play in a potential conflict in and around Taiwan? Here, we asked three leading experts to analyze newly translated assessments by Chinese scholars on Japan’s role in cross-Strait relations and implications for Beijing’s evolving relationship with Tokyo going forward.

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The newly translated documents on Japan’s evolving relationship with Taiwan and its possible role in a Taiwan Strait crisis discussed below include:

  1. The Path, Motivation and Future Trend of Japan’s Taiwan-Related Policy Adjustment, by Chen Xing, the deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Law of the Taiwan Research Institute at Beijing United University and Wen Tianpeng, a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Taiwan Studies of Nanjing University.
  2. A Multi-Perspective Analysis of the Japanese Factor in the Taiwan Issue, by Xiu Chunping, the director of the Foreign Affairs Research Center of the Taiwan Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  3. The “Rally Round the Flag” Effect in Sino-Japanese Conflicts: Characteristics and Effects of Japan’s Involvement in the Taiwan Issue by Cai Liang, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies and the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

Jump to commentary from:
Madoka Fukuda | Adam Liff | Yasuhiro Matsuda 

Madoka Fukuda

Professor, Department of Global Politics, Faculty of Law, Hosei University

The bottom line that runs through these documents is the strong perception that Japan, in cooperation with the United States, intends to use the Taiwan issue as a card to restrain China or to push China to an inferior position in regional politics. The authors of these documents are correct in most of the facts they discuss, but the above perceptions lead to an interpretation that differs from the actual situation. As a result, they often overestimate Japan’s power in international politics and its ambition for Taiwan. In reality, Japan’s involvement in the Taiwan issue is more passive and attentive to Japan’s relationship with China.

The first document shows such characteristics most clearly. The first section points out that “Japan is trying to incorporate Tsai Ing-wen,” and underlying this is the assumption that “Japan has always viewed Taiwan as a strategic tool against China.” The second section argues that Japan is a “third pole” in current international relations and that the United States is increasingly dependent on Japan. It then points out that Japan and the United States are jointly “using Taiwan to contain China.”

The second document discusses the rapid increase in Japanese interest in the Taiwan Strait. Again, the basic assumptions and views appear to be the same as in the first document, but it is interesting to note two other points: (1) that Japan wants to systematize involvement in the Taiwan Strait from the perspective of its national defense, and (2) that Japan reiterates the need for dialogue with China. These points more accurately capture Japan’s delicate position and current situation in the Taiwan Strait.

The third document was written in 2018 when the U.S.-China friction over Taiwan was less severe than it is now. Hence, its assumptions about the situation differ little from those of the first and second documents. While noting that the Japan factor played an essential role in the Taiwan issue in the postwar period, the document proposes that Japan’s influence will weaken as China’s national power grows. However, this paper’s fundamental perspective on Japan’s policy toward Taiwan is the same as the former two papers.

As discussed in the workshop, these documents should be viewed as affirming or reinforcing the Chinese government’s official perceptions or policy decisions rather than as recommendations to influence policy decisions. Thus, there is no doubt that Beijing has a growing sense of crisis that Japan and the United States are jointly using Taiwan to contain China. This perception will influence China’s policy toward Japan, and China will increasingly intend to pull Japan away from the United States and Taiwan by promoting dialogue with Japan. More fundamentally, however, as the third document shows, China suspects Japan has ambitions to colonize Taiwan again and fears that Japan will pursue cooperation with Taiwan independently of the United States.

Adam Liff

Associate Professor of East Asian International Relations and Director, 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative, Indiana University

The analyses of these four China-based scholars do not necessarily reflect—or have much influence upon—the views of policymakers in Beijing. That important opening caveat aside, when examined collectively these three articles assess that:

  • Five decades after Japan switched official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972, the “Taiwan issue” remains an “extremely important and sensitive core issue” in China-Japan relations;
  • Especially over the past decade, Japan’s leaders have sought to deepen “non-governmental” ties with and buttress international support for Taiwan, including through cooperation with the United States and, since 2021, joint statements with Washington and other U.S. democratic allies emphasizing the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”;
  • Japan is the second-most important external actor in cross-strait issues after the United States, and Tokyo has significant and independent agency and unique influence vis-à-vis Taiwan; and
  • Increased support for Taiwan from Japan and the United States is attributable primarily to geopolitical calculation in Tokyo and Washington amid worsening “strategic competition” with Beijing.

These articles provide insight into several China-based scholars’ views about recent developments. Points 1-3 are not particularly controversial. Point 4 reveals the cynical, narrow lens through which many China-based analysts interpret U.S. and Japanese concerns about democratic Taiwan—a bit ironic given widespread claims that it is Tokyo and Washington who suffer from a “Cold War mentality.”

There are several additional points to critique about these articles. Of particular note are several dubious, ambiguously sourced claims and incomplete or erroneous representations of Japan’s official positions and policies, such as a false claim that Japan’s 2022 Defense White Paper states that “reunification” would “become a real threat to Japan” (it does not). There is also a failure to clearly acknowledge decades-old Japanese and U.S. positions that do not recognize (nor explicitly deny) Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, and which insist on “peaceful resolution” (平和的解決) of the cross-strait dispute. The net effect is that the articles’ assessments of recent developments lack important historical baselining and exaggerate change in Japan’s approach—as, frankly, does much recent commentary outside China, too.

An additional—albeit entirely unsurprising—issue is that the articles do not seriously consider the possibility that shared democratic values or Beijing’s increasingly coercive behavior toward Taipei could actually be key factors driving Japanese and U.S. concern about and engagement with Taiwan. Instead, the authors frequently trot out the greatest hits of reflexive, uncritical memes that often permeate China-based commentary on the United States and its alliances. For example, the articles repeatedly assert, without compelling evidence, that Japan and the United States’ increased engagement with Taiwan is motivated largely by the desire to “use Taiwan to contain China” or due to a “Cold War mentality.” Meanwhile, worsening concerns in Tokyo about the potential threat that Beijing’s growing power and increasingly coercive behaviors toward Taiwan pose to Japan, such as when five missiles splashed down near inhabited Japanese islands during China’s massive military exercises in August 2022, are dismissed as “hyping . . . ‘the China threat.’” Another example is that the papers write off Japan’s and the United States’ references to sharing democratic values with Taiwan as “rhetorical embellishments wrapped in hegemony.”

What do these three articles tell us about the future of China-Japan relations? To be frank, it is difficult to say. For starters, it is unclear how much, if any, policy influence these four authors have, much less whether their analysis reflects prevailing thinking in high-level policy circles. Additionally, China-based scholars expressing concern about deepening U.S.-Japan cooperation vis-à-vis Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait is not at all a new phenomenon, dating back at least to the 1997 U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation.

That said, within these articles one can find grounds for both pessimism and optimism. On the one hand, the articles clearly indicate that “the Taiwan issue” is an extremely sensitive one in China-Japan relations, bemoan what they consider Japan’s significant influence and increasing “intervention” in it, flag rising “mutual distrust” and “intensifying competition” between Beijing and Tokyo, identify the two as “natural geopolitical rivals,” and suggest that the “contest between China and Japan over Taiwan will not stop, and may even escalate.”

On the other hand, none of the articles argue that these frictions are likely to fundamentally undermine China-Japan relations, much less that they will become a casus belli. While reflecting a clear frustration with Japan’s increasing “intervention,” they also grudgingly grant Japan respect as an important and influential actor, a tacit admission that suggests Beijing should factor in Tokyo’s concerns. Perhaps most optimistically, at least two of the articles’ conclusions highlight Beijing and Tokyo’s “common interests” and the importance of “pragmatic” promotion of bilateral cooperation.

On these last points, one can only hope top leaders in Beijing are listening. 

Yasuhiro Matsuda

Professor of International Politics, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo

The answer to the first question [about the seeming consensus in these documents that Japan and the United States are increasingly aligned on Taiwan] is that these documents represent “traditional conspiracy theories that exist in China.” The answer to the second question [implications for China-Japan relations going forward] is twofold.

It is worth highlighting several distinctive trends in the discourse found in Japanese and Taiwanese studies in China. These include: (1) the belief that Taiwan is seeking support from Japan and the United States to achieve its independence, (2) the belief that both Japan and the United States are playing the “Taiwan card” to keep China in check, and (3) the belief that Japan is merely a loyal follower of the United States. These tendencies were generally true for these three papers.

Cai Liang’s paper, which borrows from the rally-around-the-flag effect, a concept used in Western political science, is a typical conspiracy theory in which all three discourses are present. Xiu Chunping’s paper, which emphasizes the deep historical relationship between Japan and Taiwan, also uses all three discourses. Wen Tianpeng and Chen Xing’s paper is characterized by its emphasis on Japan’s use of the United States to intervene in Taiwanese affairs, rather than Japan following the United States, and is a conspiracy theory to some extent. The last paper is unique in that it also exaggerates Japan’s uniqueness to some extent.

Thus, although one of the discourses is emphasized or partially modified by different authors, all embrace conspiracy theories regarding the fact that Japan and the United States unilaterally support Taiwanese independence. The common feature is that they do not mention China’s hegemonic actions, such as military threats and economic coercive measures against Taiwan and Japan, as the biggest factor in the deterioration of international relations with Taiwan.

In other words, the only view accepted in China is that Japan and the United States are deepening cooperation and unilaterally supporting Taiwan’s independence, and that the United States and Japan are solely responsible for the deterioration in their relations with China. Thus, the more these conspiracy theories grow, the worse they will be for Japan-China relations. The problem is that the specific implications for China are becoming twofold.

Currently, China is under greater pressure to neutralize the strategic competition between the United States and China. Therefore, the first policy implication that can be drawn is that strong pressure should be exerted on the weaker Japan to wean it from cooperation with the United States, including by threatening Japan. On the other hand, the second implication could be that Japan-China relations should be improved in order to wean Japan from the United States. The former argument ignores the fact that China’s hegemonic behavior is the main cause of Japan’s reliance on the United States. Therefore, it overlooks the possibility that if pressure increases on Japan, the United States and Japan will become more closely entwined in a “vicious circle.” This implies that improving relations with Japan will separate Japan and the United States but not change China’s hegemonic behavior. China once adopted the former policy but is believed to have now adopted the latter.

However, if China pressurizes or uses tactical charm offensive diplomacy against Japan without changing its hegemonic behavior toward Taiwan, it will have little effect on Japan-U.S. relations. Currently, the biggest problem in Chinese diplomacy is that it has put itself in a position where any tactical shift will not alleviate the conflict between China and advanced democracies. Hence, Sino-Japanese relations will take time to improve but not long to worsen.

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