Shifting relations with China


JAPAN’S RELATIONS WITH CHINA: Facing a Rising Power, edited by Lam Peng Er. London: Routledge, 2006, 242 pp., £65 (cloth).

Sino-Japanese relations are of critical importance to the future development of the two countries as well as wider East Asia. At the present time these relations are characterized by a number of incongruities if not contradictions. Diplomacy is at a low point, while economic ties are closer and more intensive than ever. History continues to overshadow the present and is destined to impact the shaping of the future.

Mutual resentment is deep-rooted, not having been put to rest by the shared aim of profit and growth. Developmental disparities between Japan and China foster more intensive economic ties because they both have what their opposite number needs. For the time being Chinese cheap labor and Japanese capital and technology complement each other well and to the benefit of both.

But the same disparities generate tensions between the two countries. “China rising, Japan stagnating” is a tune frequently heard of late when East Asia and the position of its major countries in the world are being discussed. They have many common interests, but there is rivalry and distrust, too.

The present volume adds to the flow of publications dealing with this complex relationship between East Asia’s most influential players. It does so from various angles reflecting the fields and viewpoints of 12 scholars who contributed chapters, the majority of whom are Japanese. As the title of the book and in the roster of the authors suggests, the focus is more on the Japanese than the Chinese side of the relationship. The editor, Lam Peng Er, however, is a political scientist affiliated with the National University of Singapore.

Dealing with Japan-China relations from a detached point of view has the double advantage of evading the traps of pinning the blame for worsening ties on either side and highlighting the interests of Southeast Asian countries that have a stake in good relations with both China and Japan. The perspectives from third parties, Malaysia, Russia and the United States are also represented in this volume, and for good reasons.

Whether Japan’s relationship with China evolves in the direction of cooperation or conflict depends not least on the American stance vis-a-vis China. China-bashing is where American and Japanese nationalists who otherwise do not see eye to eye on many things find common ground.

Russia, too, is a Far Eastern power with its own interests that no attempt to understand the dynamics of the region can ignore. And Malaysia has looked at Japan as a model for economic development, launching a “Learn from Japan” campaign, but is now seeking to benefit from China’s rapid economic growth.

History, diplomacy and commerce are three determining factors of Japan-China relations, and they are, accordingly, treated at length in several chapters of the book. Other interesting aspects include the influence of Japanese domestic politics on its foreign policy toward China and the relations between the two countries at levels below the central government. Under the Koizumi government the sway of the “China School” within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined, much to the discontent of the Chinese. How highly Beijing values a good relationship with its eastern neighbor was strikingly apparent when the Chinese government issued an elaborate note of condolence on July 1, the very day former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was considered an advocate of good neighborly relations with China, died.

Because of their long intertwined history and geographic proximity, Japan’s relations with China transcend interstate dealings. While these are paid due attention in a couple of chapters dealing with such matters as the all-important Taiwan factor and Japan’s aspirations for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, nongovernment and nonstate centric modes of interaction between the two nations are also addressed.

As becomes clear in one of the chapters, there is increasing interaction between the two neighbors, ranging from sister relationships between cities, prefectures/provinces and other localities to overseas trade promotion offices and technical and economic cooperation. Not that these subnational ties are always harmonious, but they form an element of the complex interlace that connects the two countries.

The same is true of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A case study of the citizen-based Green Earth Network of Osaka, which was engaged in the reforestation of a loess plateau in Shanxi province of China, illustrates the kinds of activity that go unnoticed in government reports. Similar activities in various social, cultural, economic and environmental issues are undertaken by hundreds of Japanese NGOs. These make a significant contribution to improving bilateral ties on the social level, which are so often tested by the lack of a historical reconciliation on the political level.

On the whole, this book is descriptive and analytic, befitting its academic authors. Yet, surprisingly to this reader, some of the authors do not refrain from value-loaded statements about the actual and desired nature of Japan’s relations with China. In this regard as well as with respect to the editor’s craftsmanship, the book could have benefited from a firmer hand.