China’s recent economic progress coupled with its growing assertiveness in international politics has, in Asia, Europe and the U.S., given rise to some concern and a number of commentaries about the role of China in international politics.
It may be worthwhile to compare present-day China’s influence with the impact of the political rise of Japan in the early part of the 20th century as well as with the rapid Japanese economic development in the 1970s and ’80s.
On Japan’s politico-economic rise before World War II, one could note at least three fundamental differences between Japan’s international position before World War II and that of China today.
First, Japan has never been colonized by any Western power and thus could not use “the mantle” of having been victimized by a Western invasion (although Japan occasionally claimed that Asia, including Japan, was a victim of Western hegemony).
Second, somewhat related to the problem of colonialism, there is the question or claim of developing-country status. Japan has never enjoyed special favors such as preferential tariff rates or economic aids, nor did she deploy the “politics of the Third World.” In other words, Japan has never claimed the “political status” of being a poor nation.
This leads to the third difference between prewar Japan and contemporary China: namely, the absence of allies among underprivileged countries with which one could voice complaints on the fairness of the international order.
Why did the Japanese politico-military rise in the early 20th century lead to rivalry between Japan and the Western powers and push Japan to rectify the international order by means of military force? One reason relates to the dominance of Western colonialism in that period and Japan’s reaction to it.
This implies that China today, though she may make some attempts to rectify several aspects of the current international order in association with other formerly colonized or semi-colonized nations, is unlikely to plunge blindly into the type of outright rivalry with the Western established powers as Japan had done, because China’s present rise is not an isolated phenomenon, and she is indeed bound to the world of the “developing countries” where, ironically, the rules of the game have been more less internationally recognized.
All these factors have worked or are likely to work positively for China’s relations with the international community, in that China is bound to other “fellow nations” from which she can not entirely isolate herself.
(Nevertheless, China’s status as a developing country is an issue to be seriously examined. The idea of the “Third World,” or the international dichotomy of the rich and the poor, originated with the class distinction of Marxism. The notion of dividing the contemporary world into developed and developing nations is becoming more and more obsolete. How to deal with the basic concept of “developing-country status” in the current international order is a serious matter to be studied, particularly in relation to big emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil.)
However, there is one difference between Japan and China that may work negatively in China’s relations with the rest of the world.
In the prewar period, Japan was alone in the non-Western world, with the result that she had to be cautious until at least the 1930s. Yet contemporary China, which felt deeply humiliated by Western (and Japanese) colonialism and felt sure that she had many friends, might be tempted to become arrogant and self-righteous, as she could claim that the West (and Japan) should redress the damage inflicted upon China throughout the 19th century and early part of the 20th century.
If one turns to the difference between postwar Japanese economic progress and that of contemporary China, one will immediately notice one great difference: Japan’s economic progress was a part of her efforts to be reintegrated into the international community from which she had been ostracized in the wake of World War II, while China came out of the war as one of the victors and the Chinese Communist Party’s isolationism was, more or less, its own choice.
In other words, China has had no need to adopt the “low posture diplomacy” that Japan had to carry out for several decades after the war.
This difference implies that economic development for Japan from the 1950s to the 1970s was linked to Japan’s political wish to be recognized as an equal partner in the Western world, while the contemporary Chinese economic progress is more similar in its political significance to Japanese political ambition in the Meiji Era to become a strong power in the world.
Putting all these factors together, one could say that China may be inclined to become more assertive and even self-righteous as its economic, military and political power increases. Even though the Chinese government remains wise enough to avoid an arrogant posture, the rising tide of patriotism and nationalism within China may force the government to take a tough stance toward the outside world.
One possible way to prevent China from going in such a direction will be efforts on the part of neighboring Asian countries to remind China that it had sometimes exerted quasi-colonialism or similar dominance in Asia and that its Asian neighbors would not welcome such a China again.
As for contemporary Japan, she could remind China that both Japan and China should be more aware of the “Asian responsibility” for settling global issues, such as environmental problems or disaster prevention, since both countries, commensurate with their respective economic progress, are expected to play global roles for solving global issues.
Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.
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