U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech and executive orders pose grave concerns and uncertainties for American allies and partners. His “America First” foreign policy and his withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact could undermine American credibility sustained by its security and economic commitments in East Asia. Moreover, American soft power as a guardian of universal values and the open and rules-based international order could be lost. Smaller countries might vacillate between the U.S. and China. The consequences could be a disaster.
Since World War II’s end, the U.S. has promoted and expanded the international order based on freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. As a standard bearer of the liberal international order, the U.S. has safeguarded its allies and promoted both free trade and official development assistance for the sake of peace and prosperity in the world. This vision and strategy remained consistent throughout all the postwar U.S. administrations.
Trump, however, didn’t give the world any sign that he would pursue such a role. Instead, his only words echoing through the world are “America first,” which he described as “a new decree to be heard in every foreign capital.” The open and rules-based international order is at risk of collapse.
There are two indispensable factors to shape the international order.
One is power; the other is legitimacy. More powerful states can have a stronger say to form or change the international order than less powerful states do. However, if the order lacks legitimacy — i.e., the right and justification to exercise power — the order is not durable.
Trump’s America will lose this legitimacy while China has failed to show any legitimacy. China can’t be a legitimate leader of the international order if it continues to wield its own “core interests” and excessive nationalism while advocating the “concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” as it did this month in a white paper on its policies on Asia-Pacific security cooperation.
The legitimacy of the international order is deeply intertwined with the legitimacy of the domestic order of major powers like the U.S. and China. In this sense, the open and rules-based international order could be reinforced and sustained by America’s political credibility as a liberal democracy and China’s internal development toward a more open and rules-based society.
Now, however, we are witnessing two great powers that prefer might rather than legitimacy and the world is overwhelmed by a widespread feeling of doom and gloom.
In a time of transition marked by uncertainty, however, let’s turn our eyes to a little more optimistic development in East Asia. It is worthy to see positive aspects of globalization in developing East Asia instead of the negative aspects that contributed to the anger and frustration of working-class whites in the highly developed West who helped elect Trump and voted for Brexit.
In East Asia, economic interdependence among countries has deepened and the regional network of telecommunications and transportation has developed. Connectivity and interdependency are notable characteristics that could be the driving forces to change the mindsets and value systems of the people involved in this dynamism.
In China, social media plays an increasingly important role in making society more transparent and fair. More and more people are entering the middle class, enabling them to go overseas for travel and study. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan has been increasing dramatically in recent years. They see the world through their old eyes and then see China through their new eyes. Then change occurs.
Every big Chinese city is deeply enmeshed in the global economic order. China’s fastest developing areas — the coastal regions — are vulnerable to any war and economic disruption. China’s sustainable development will depend on regional peace and stability and its commitment to maintaining the open and rules-based international order.
The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party depends on the nation’s economic growth. In recent years, however, China’s economy has been weathering a “new normal” in which its economic prospect are less bright than before.
Additionally, but no less seriously, an increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, serious environmental degradation, an aging society and insufficient social welfare, and rampant corruption are crossing the Chinese people’s “red line.” Who knows when another people’s revolt could occur in China?
President Xi Jinping may know that sustainable development is possible only if China chooses regional cooperation rather than coercion or unilateral action. However, Trump’s provocative language could trigger a more assertive policy incited by hawkish elements in the party and military, and nationalistic netizens. Japan should cultivate and use wise diplomacy to encourage the Chinese leadership to seek legitimacy through sustainable development rather than nationalism.
According to surveys conducted by the Genron NPO think tank and the China Daily newspaper, about 90 percent of respondents in Japan and China have an unfavorable or relatively unfavorable impression of the other. Nevertheless, more than 70 percent of respondents think that bilateral ties are important and the existing relationship is undesirable enough to cause worry or to necessitate improvement. Politicians must take their concerns and expectations seriously.
Both the Japanese and Chinese governments are conducting various diplomatic efforts to improve bilateral relations. Given the increasing uncertainties in the region as previously mentioned, what kind of approach should be prioritized to manage and improve Japan-China relations?
First, political and security tensions must be reduced as much as possible. If tension leads to armed conflict between Japan and China, there will be no winners. Instead, both countries will be losers. As such, an effective mechanism to avoid accidental conflict between the two countries must be established as soon as possible.
Second, Japan and China’s leaders should have face-to-face meetings on a more frequent basis. Diplomats in both countries must work hard to create such opportunities, including the bilateral meeting this year between Japan and China’s leaders to mark the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations.
Third, both governments could set up shared platforms to facilitate interactions involving politicians, bureaucrats, military officers, businesspersons, journalists, scholars, students and tourists to promote mutual understanding and trust. Given the asymmetric flow of people between China and Japan, more Japanese people should strive to visit China, where there are still vast frontiers and vast potential to do business and cooperation in a variety of fields.
Last but not least, Japan must be resilient to remain strong, liberal, democratic and successful itself in the interval before America returns to its role of guardian of the liberal international order.
Masahiro Kohara is a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Law and Politics. Previously he served as a career diplomat in the Foreign Ministry.