Commentary / Japan

The gap in 'China policies'

With Japan hosting the Group of Seven summit last month, and China set to chair the Group of 20 summit in September, these will be U.S. President Barack Obama’s final visits to the two countries during his eight-year presidency. These visits will also be a test of how in sync the policies of the United States and Japan toward China really are.

In the early days of the Obama administration, the U.S. adopted a policy of accommodation and “strategic reassurance” toward China, revealing a clear gap between the China policies of Washington and Tokyo. This policy gap is now a thing of the past: the U.S. has switched to a policy of “rebalancing” in response to China’s aggressive efforts to challenge the status quo in the South China Sea. In the past two years of this new period, Japan and the U.S. have also cooperated closely regarding the defense of the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Notwithstanding these developments, beneath the surface one can still detect a gap between the American and Japanese perceptions of, and approach to, China. Namely:

1. At present, the Obama administration finds its most difficult relationship to be with Russia, not China. However, China remains the “primary contradiction” for Japan’s foreign and defense policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Obama’s differing evaluations of Vladimir Putin — Abe calls him “someone we can do business with,” while Obama has rejected him as a “spoiler” — are equally rooted in the two countries’ differing approaches to China. U.S. leaders are well aware that China represents the greater long-term strategic risk. However, given Russia’s humiliation of the U.S. in Ukraine and Syria, domestic politics dictate a tougher approach to Russia.

2. Within the U.S. government, there are two schools of thought on the proper approach to China. On one hand, the Pentagon and the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) are pushing for a stronger and clearer response to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the White House would like to stabilize relations with China across all areas, including cybersecurity and the global environment.

Many in the U.S. government have come to believe that deepening cooperation with China on global issues such as climate change will directly benefit their management of other regional geopolitical challenges.

Apparently Secretary of State John Kerry still belongs to this school of thought. Japan, however, believes that even if these sets of issues could be linked, it is doubtful that it would encourage China to exercise restraint in the geopolitical sphere. Indeed, Japan acutely feels nakedly exposed to China’s assertiveness and is concerned that this unease is not sufficiently shared by the Obama administration.

The Abe administration’s approach to China is similar to that of the Pentagon and PACOM, while the White House feels hemmed in by the Pentagon-Japan alliance. The fact that the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) and Japan’s National Security Secretariat (NSS) are not working well together at present is a reflection of this state of affairs.

3. The U.S. hopes that China’s participation in economic sanctions aimed at deterring North Korea’s aggressive development of nuclear weaponry and ballistic missiles, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, might prompt Beijing to exert other forms of influence and pressure on Pyongyang. But Japan sees China’s cooperation with these sanctions as a sham, and holds out little hope of real assistance from China. On the contrary, the Japanese government maintains a high degree of vigilance in this regard, as it fears the consequences of the U.S. becoming indebted to China.

4. The U.S. and China seem to have begun coordinating on macroeconomic policy. Were that to be the case, a U.S.-China G-2 currency system could form that would cause deep concern in Japan. Specifically, it is quite possible that Federal Reserve Board Chairwoman Janet Yellen and People’s Bank of China Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan have agreed to avoid significantly raising interest rates or drastically devaluing the Chinese yuan, respectively — at least through the U.S. presidential election in November. Any such arrangement would limit Japanese attempts at further quantitative easing, and as a byproduct, constrain the yen’s depreciation.

Within this context, the challenge for Japan will be to refrain from jumping to the conclusion — or giving the impression — that a “new Cold War” is underway between Japan and China, or between China and the U.S. The Obama administration has taken the two-pronged approach to China of “engagement and balance.” When the U.S. and Chinese heads of state met alongside the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the substance of their meeting was the exchange of a sort of “war-renouncing oath,” as they agreed that “the U.S. and China will avoid military confrontation.” Japan equally has no choice but to pursue a policy of “engagement and balance” with China.

Meanwhile, the challenge facing the U.S. is to ensure that the next administration will not reduce its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region in order to ingratiate itself to protectionist and isolationist forces in domestic politics.

And for both the U.S. and Japan, the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by Congress and the Diet must serve as the opening act to the full-scale development of their rebalancing strategy.

China has always been the thorn in the side of the Japan-U.S. relationship. In the 20th century, the prewar Manchurian Incident of 1931 and President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China in the postwar period shook Japan-U.S. relations to the core. If China does set out to decisively upend the regional order and balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, a shared perspective on China, and a shared approach, will be a matter of life and death for both Japan and the U.S.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism).

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