Commentary / Japan

U.S.-China 'Cold War' narrative is misleading

by Lully Miura

The 2020 presidential campaign has already started in the United States. For a year and half, the rest of the world will be influenced by the U.S. electoral process. The U.S.-China trade war will likely be one of the election’s central issues. Geopolitical observers have long tackled the question of great power transitions. The world will witness how this unfolds as part of the domestic power struggle and party politics in the U.S.

The question is acute, especially for a country like Japan, which lives between these two global powers. Although the media tend to focus only on the aspect of day-to-day fights and deals, one should look at the fundamental structure of the U.S.-China trade war.

To ensure government stability as well as President Xi Jinping’s personal power, China faces two kinds of challenge: how to maintain economic growth and how to keep Xi’s rivals out of power. Considering the lingering risks in the Chinese economy, Beijing cannot drag the trade war on indefinitely. China’s trade surplus vis-a-vis the U.S. suggests that it has more to lose, at least over the short term. If the communist regime fails to contain such risks, it will likely encounter a backlash of public opinion, which is of concern even for such an authoritarian regime.

China, however, has the benefit of time. It has little incentive to provoke the U.S., which is increasingly growing inward looking. The Trump administration has been warning its allies in NATO and East Asia that America’s defense assurances do not come without a price. Such a notion benefits Russia and China, even though it may be true.

Of course, the story about East Asian allies is different from NATO’s because Japan and South Korea depend more on the alliance than the Europeans. Favorability of the U.S. is still quite high in these two countries, according to the Pew Research Center. As a matter of fact, the U.S. is the only power that wins high favorability ratings across Northeast Asia, where hostilities among regional powers persist. Relations between Japan and South Korea, as well as between South Korea and the U.S., have become increasingly divided as China increases its influence. The region’s fundamentals benefit China and the only thing it has to do is wait.

There are widely shared concerns that the U.S. might withdraw from the region. What is unique about the Trump administration is that it focuses more on economic competition with China than on geopolitics. Despite the administration’s crude tactics, many experts actually support President Donald Trump’s objective to maintain U.S. economic superiority, which forms the basis of its hegemony. The mainstream of the Republican Party seems to be focused on retaining U.S. technological hegemony. Trump is geared more toward short-term gains, but his idea is not far from that of the GOP.

To win the economic game, the U.S. should be aware that its strategic advantage resides in the power of its alliances. The network of alliances around the globe, when combined, constitutes a huge market under U.S. influence. Given that the Chinese economy is expected to surpass the U.S. in absolute size, the alliance effect that the U.S. has cannot be understated. Without this collective buying power, U.S. hegemony will be severely compromised. The trade war is likely bound for some version of economic enclosure.

For U.S. allies, such as Japan, this economic enclosure is seriously problematic. Thus far, the trade war has only directly influenced parts of the public sector procurement of Chinese products made by firms such as Huawei. It is, however, starting to affect various sectors by increasing risks and uncertainties. The U.S.-led enclosure will, of course, prompt China to create its own self-sufficient economic bloc. It will hurt many of the Asian economies that do business both with China and the U.S., including Japan.

Therefore, the fact that Japanese media and politicians casually make Cold War analogies is dangerous and misleading in two ways. First, they underestimate the damages to Japan’s economic interests, as stated above. Second, they misread U.S. intentions, and thus rely too much on the security the alliance provides.

Data from China also suggest that the Cold War analogy narrative is flawed. The findings from an online survey I conducted between December and January indicate that favorability toward the U.S. among the Chinese public dropped only 4 percentage points from a year ago and remains high at 62 percent.

Compared with past surveys, China’s perception of other countries has improved, especially through its economic progress and closer trade relationships. Chinese who travel abroad gain more favorable images of other countries, including Japan and the U.S. The image of Japan among the Chinese improved by 8 points compared with the previous year.

On the other hand, Chinese respondents who answered that they have reduced their consumption of U.S. products and services increased by 10 points to 43 percent. People who have stopped buying U.S. products and services altogether now make up 22 percent of the respondents. Clearly, public sentiment in China is shifting. In 2014, the ratio of people who answered that they did not change their behavior in times of diplomatic tensions with the U.S. was 59.8 percent. Four years later, it declined to 29.4 percent. However, the boycott of U.S.-made goods is still more restrained than such actions against Japan or South Korea. The U.S. is still the most favorable country to Chinese people among these three nations, and U.S. products remain popular.

More generally, favorability toward the U.S. has changed very little. That says a lot about the sources of U.S. soft power. Admiration for American culture and strength remains even though the economic rivalry is real. That is one of the reasons the Cold War analogy is irrelevant. Chinese people are more attracted to practical economic interests and respect U.S. culture. This is a sign of hope, and the very reason the U.S. should not shed its economic and soft power for the sake of short-sighted interests.

Misreading Chinese public opinion and U.S. intentions is one of the most classic mistakes that Japan tends to make. Japanese society, according to several surveys, is overly anti-China. The right reads too much anti-China sentiment in U.S. politicians, while the left casually ignores the risks of abandonment by the U.S. Perceptions of what is happening overseas has shifted in Japanese politics. Now the favorability of China among Japanese citizens is about 10 percent. Japan’s pacifist tradition has quickly deteriorated over the two decades since China’s rise became apparent.

What is the stance of Japanese pacifists when they dislike China so much, all the while disliking South Korea and also continuing to be skeptical of the alliance? The danger to Japanese society is not its nationalism, but its isolationism.

Lully Miura is a political scientist and the president of Yamaneko Research Institute. She teaches at Aoyama Gakuin University and was a member of an advisory panel to the prime minister on the National Defense Program Guidelines.