Diplomatic retooling needed in face of China


First in a series

A little more than 60 years ago Japan was a battered, defeated nation.

The people marshaled their strength and wisdom, devoted themselves to rebuilding the nation, and in just a few decades Japan rose from the ashes as one of the leading countries of the world.

But recently, with the rise of China and other economies in Asia, Japan’s position as a major power is growing increasingly shaky. In fields ranging from diplomacy to manufacturing to education to entertainment, Japan is now being challenged by emerging competitors.

In diplomacy, major players, particularly the United States, are closely watching China, which has been spreading its influence around the world in recent years. For Japan to maintain its place in the international community, it needs to shift from the old “follow the U.S.” diplomacy to one that better balances its relationships with both the U.S. and China, analysts say.

China has succeeded in boosting its presence with double-digit increases in defense spending for 21 years in a row, and now its gross domestic product is just a step away from topping Japan’s.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. led the world in 2008 with GDP of $14.441 trillion, followed by Japan at $4.910 trillion. China was right behind with $4.327 trillion. The IMF estimates that in 2010, China will surpass Japan in GDP.

Zhu Jianrong, a professor of international relations and Chinese political affairs at Toyo Gakuen University, said the U.S. is trying to develop a new “cooperating relationship” with China while maintaining its alliance with Japan.

“The financial and economic power of China has increased . . . and the U.S. is searching for a way to cooperate with the Asian community without barriers — an alliance with Japan and a new cooperating relationship with China,” Zhu said.

Concern, however, has arisen in Japan that President Barack Obama is attaching greater importance to China. But that may not be surprising, considering that China has beaten out Japan to become the No. 1 holder of U.S. Treasury securities.

Obama’s first Asia policy speech, delivered in Tokyo in November, stressed the importance of pursuing “pragmatic cooperation with China” and added the U.S. is not threatened by China’s emergence.

“In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another,” Obama said. “Cultivating spheres of cooperation — not competing spheres of influence — will lead to progress in the Asia-Pacific” region.

Beijing has become so powerful that the term “G-2” — meaning the U.S. and China in a class of their own on the world stage — has begun to spread. Where this leaves Japan is the question Tokyo must address.

Both Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Obama have repeatedly stressed the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance. But ties between the two countries have become extremely rocky over the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

The previous government led by the Liberal Democratic Party signed an agreement with the U.S. in 2006 to relocate Futenma’s aircraft operations to Camp Schwab in the northern part of the island. But Hatoyama, unable to reach a decision, recently shelved the issue until 2010 to look for other candidate sites, angering the U.S. side.

Experts on Japan-U.S. relations have expressed strong concern over the recent strain, warning the Hatoyama government could even be at risk if he doesn’t deal with the issue properly.

While the U.S. has been wooing China, Japan also made a big leap in approaching Beijing, an impossibility when the relationship between Japan and China was severely strained for a time under LDP rule.

Since taking power in September, Hatoyama has shown strong interest in strengthening ties with China, seeking its cooperation to create an East Asia community.

Just last month, a visit by Vice President Xi Jinping created a stir when he was given “special treatment” by Hatoyama and his government, granting him an audience with Emperor Akihito despite not following the Imperial protocol of submitting the request a month in advance.

DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa led a delegation of 600 members to visit China in early December, where they received a warm reception by President Hu Jintao. Earlier reports suggested Ozawa had a hand in the breach of Imperial protocol.

Another symbolic event was the agreement in November between the two countries to hold joint military training for the first time.

Masaharu Hishida, a professor of contemporary China studies at Hosei University, said this agreement is huge.

“While the training may be on the level of disaster rescues, it is a major issue that Japan and China, which you can say have been historic rivals, have decided to hold joint military training in the East Asia region,” Hishida said. “This could be the start of a diverse security mechanism in East Asia with Japan, China and South Korea forming the core.”

Some experts meanwhile say Japan need not worry too much about China’s growing power.

Hishida noted that when it comes to GDP per capita, China is way down the list.

“It depends on how you look at it. Nobody would argue that China is just a step away from passing Japan from a macro-economy viewpoint,” Hishida said. “From a per capita point of view, it is clear China is still a developing country.”

China still has a long way to go before becoming a truly major power because of its “double structure,” he said.

“The double structure (of a high GDP and a low GDP per capita) is something that Japan once went through as well,” Hishida said. “And overcoming this double structure is part of the process of becoming an industrialized country.”

Also, China itself doesn’t like being referred to as a “G-2” country, as it would actually put Beijing at a diplomatic disadvantage, Zhu says.

“China has remained cool-headed by having nothing to do with the G-2 because it suspects that such a structure could drive a wedge between it and nations like Russia and Japan that have already shown uneasiness at the prospect of China devoting all of its attention to the U.S.”

However, Japan may still be able to learn from China’s strategy.

Resource-hungry China has spread its wings by aiding Africa in the past decade through its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, where Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised in November during its fourth meeting to provide $10 billion in concessional loans to African countries.

The forum was started in 2000 and has convened every three years.

Japan has been leading the Tokyo International Conference on African Development since 1993 together with the United Nations and the World Bank. But the result of the most recent TICAD in May 2008 was a promise to offer up to $4 billion in yen loans over the next five years — less than half of China’s commitment.

Hishida said China’s interest in Africa dates back to the 1960s and ’70s through such projects as the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.

“China has always been enthusiastic about Africa, placing African diplomacy at the core of its foreign policy,” Hishida said. “Part of it had to do with China’s policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War (and rival aid strategies) and in addition to the diplomatic aspect, it was about natural resources.”

Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research center at Hiroshima City University, said China has always had a long-term vision in conducting foreign policy.

“For a long time, China has been at the bottom, and it is always focused on how to regenerate after being crushed by the great powers,” Asai said. “China has been blessed with leaders that have a long-term and strategic vision to rank among the world powers. In this way, China is overall several steps ahead of Japan.”

While experts are confident Japan won’t be left out in the cold by the emergence of China, they also slam Japan’s foreign policy as nonexistent, saying its leaders need to take concrete steps and send out “meaningful messages.”

Asai stressed that Japan’s huge economy and war-renouncing Constitution provides it with two potential sources to build up its international presence — but the nation is oblivious to this.

“Objectively, Japan has tremendous diplomatic potential, but neither the politicians in Nagata-cho nor the people recognize this,” said Asai, a former diplomat.

Critics including Asai say that for decades after World War II, Japan just followed the U.S. But since the historic Lower House election in August that brought in a government led by the DPJ, Hatoyama has been calling for a “close and equal” Japan-U.S. relationship.

“If Hatoyama said ‘equal’ with the awareness and the will to break free from the LDP’s longtime diplomacy of toadying to the U.S., then yes, I think it would be meaningful,” Asai said.

“But seeing how the DPJ is dealing with issues like Futenma, you can’t say the relationship has become equal . . . and the word ‘equal’ has become empty and meaningless.”

But Toyo Gakuen’s Zhu praises Hatoyama’s efforts to create an East Asia community and build better ties with China.

He says that in the long run, Japan may be able to step closer to other parts of Asia and establish a diplomatic formation that is closer to an equilateral triangle between Asia, the U.S. and Japan.

“The future of Japan’s diplomacy lies in a close relationship with the U.S. while strengthening ties with the Asian countries,” Zhu said. “Japan needs the balance of both (relationships), and in five or 10 years Japan may be able to build a truly equal relationship with Asia.”