For decades Japan has patiently fostered maturity and order in its relationships with its neighbors, expecting that time and deepening interdependence would yield behavior constrained by a set of mutually agreed rules—in short, that Japan and its neighbors would be waltzing in a formal ballroom setting. The past couple of years have been, instead, a slam dance of intentional collisions and growing frustration. Can the partners resume their orderly maneuvering, or will flying knees and elbows lead to a fight on the dance floor of East Asia?
To perhaps push the metaphor too far, it will depend in large part on the music being played; the predictable notes of cooperation, exchange, and trade and investment produce a careful dance, while the harsh discord of historical and territorial disputes leads directly to bumps and bruises. Much of this is beyond the control of Tokyo: Increasing assertiveness by China has been a widely recognized theme for several years, while South Korea has pursued nationalistic posturing since then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s 2012 visit to the islands claimed by South Korea as the Dokdo and by Japan as Takeshima. Nonetheless, it is commonly believed that it is Japan’s behavior and rhetoric, especially since the return to power of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that has drowned out the dulcet harmonies of mutualism and cranked up the volume of clashing interests.
This article argues that while the Japanese have hardly been wallflowers, with Abe trying to give as good as he gets by throwing a few obnoxious blows around, Tokyo is still fundamentally oriented toward a decorous and polite style of dance rather than the crude thrashing of the recent past.
There is certainly an element of trilateralism in Northeast Asia, seen in the “+3” or China-Japan-South Korea processes addressing trade liberalization, investment protection, energy cooperation and environmental issues. There are also the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear weapons program, in which China, Japan and South Korea cooperate with aligned interests.
At the same time, there are signs of triangularity—that is, two-against-one positioning—to the three parties’ relations, notably in the matter of Japan’s historical responsibility, where China and South Korea have made common cause to isolate Japan. All that being said, however, the basic nature of Japan’s approach to China is not determined by South Korea; nor has Japan’s South Korea policy been shaped by the challenge of coping with China—not yet anyway. Each bilateral relationship is driven by its distinct issues and interests, which demand to be examined separately, before a careful consideration of how the evolving China-Japan-South Korea triangle will affect the Northeast Asian order.
Japan’s Basic Strategy Toward the Rise of China
Since the early 1960s Japan has actively pursued the integration of China
into the regional and global economic and political order, based on a strategy with even deeper roots in Japanese experience and expectations. Japan carried out this strategy with enthusiasm for decades, despite setbacks such as anti-Japanese protests by the Chinese public, the Tiananmen massacre and unresolved disputes over the islands claimed by China as the Diaoyu and by Japan as the Senkakus. Japan’s decision to procede with an imperial visit to China in 1992 reflected the deep confidence that China would increasingly follow the rules, a confidence that led Japan to strongly support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
Japan’s provision of official development assistance (ODA) to China beginning in 1979 was a central component of this integration effort. While in some sense a quasi-compensation for World War II, the ODA from Japan also had the important goal, and effect, of enabling China to take part in regional production chains and follow Japan in export-led economic development. The infrastructure projects—which included ports, roads, railways, power plants and airports—all served to make investment by Japanese manufacturers easier, which further contributed to Chinese growth and prosperity. It was exactly the sort of win-win arrangement that the Japanese saw as the paradigm for future Sino-Japanese relations.
At the same time, Japan increasingly felt the need to hedge against Chinese willingness to ignore the rules, particularly in the realm of national security. Even as Tokyo redoubled its support for Chinese integration into the regional and global order, it faced growing doubts about its giant neighbor’s belligerence. Would the trajectory of China’s power growth outrace its maturation into a pillar of the world community? From nuclear tests and threats of force against Taiwan in the mid-1990s to the development of anti-satellite weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles in the 2000s, China’s militaristic behavior has worried Japan more and more.
Japan has reached various breaking points along the way, abandoning aspects of its long-standing approach to China such as the “friendship diplomacy
” paradigm. The calamitous 1998 visit to Japan of then-President Jiang Zemin—the first by a Chinese head of state—left many Japanese disillusioned: Jiang harangued Japanese audiences about matters of historical views and caused offense by his behavior and dress at a state dinner hosted by the emperor. Anti-Japanese riots in China in 2005, which helped scuttle Japan’s ambition to join the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member, deflated supporters of accommodation still further. September 2010 brought the sharpest blow up to that point in the form of the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coast guard vessel, followed by intense confrontation between the two governments. In the immediate aftermath of that incident, prominent journalist Yoichi Funabashi asserted that Japan might abandon its effort at co-optation and instead prepare to
“engage in a long, long struggle with China.”
Japan’s reluctant embrace of realism, long predicted by analysts
of regional affairs, has reshaped Japanese security policy. Tokyo has lifted or modified various restrictions on its defense establishment, such as the ban on military use of space, relaxed to allow spy satellites, and the ban on arms exports, relaxed to allow defense industrial cooperation with the United States. It has reallocated forces to the defense of the Southwest Islands, with an emphasis on air and naval power. Most recently, it has enacted an increase in the defense budget after years of decline and established a National Security Council. These moves constitute significant steps toward internal balancing, and at the same time a contribution toward a stronger alliance with the United States, the key element of Japan’s external balancing of China.
Japan has demonstrated increased devotion to the alliance with Washington since 9/11, with the exception of the early part of the 2009-2010 Hatoyama administration, when the partnership was strained by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s desire to decrease Japan’s dependence on the U.S. and his commitment to a reduction of U.S. troops in Okinawa. What is remarkable is that Hatoyama was not welcomed by Beijing despite his call for a closer relationship with China, and was rapidly disavowed by the Japanese themselves. The speed with which even the centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rushed to placate Washington—by the time of DPJ Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda took office in 2011, the defense and foreign policy of the DPJ was indistinguishable from that of their Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rivals—reveals how completely Japanese elite have come to rely on the alliance. As the Japanese frequently say, it would be impossible for Japan to balance China on its own.
Another element of external balancing is Japan’s effort to establish a united front with other Asian countries, especially those suspicious of or threatened by China. The Philippines and Vietnam are involved in territorial disputes with China, and have been courted by Tokyo. India and Australia are cautious about the longer-term implications
of Chinese power growth, and Japan has also sought to strengthen security relations with them. Japanese political circles have also targeted Taiwan, which despite its public stance that everything is fine in cross-Strait relations shows willingness to enhance its channels to Tokyo
. Finally, there are many in Japan, and in Washington, who see South Korea as a critical component of an external balance to Chinese expansionism—one reason they worry about the current dysfunctional state of Japan-South Korea relations.
Japan’s Tolerant Approach to South Korea
The legacy of Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula is impossible to ignore even now, nearly 70 years after liberation, though the time that has passed since Korean independence is now twice the duration of the formal period of Japanese control, from 1910 to 1945. Despite the long-standing presence of Korean nationals residing in Japan, deep misunderstanding persists on both sides. In particular, Japanese are confused that the Koreans seem hypersensitive to any sign of disrespect while at the same time being extremely critical of whatever Japan does.
As with China, Japan has believed that a basic policy of accommodation and benign tolerance would allow for steady maturation of bilateral ties with South Korea. Officials and political and business leaders in Tokyo recognized that the domestic legitimacy of the government in Seoul depended on a significant degree of toughness toward Japan to overcome the past humiliation of colonialism and allow for Korean national pride, in large part because the division of Korea had induced a competition over which government on the Korean Peninsula was more authentic and legitimate. This is not to suggest that Japan was especially generous toward South Korea at any stage, because in fact the Japanese bargained hard to offer the bare minimum necessary at each stage of development in the relationship to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. There was, however, always a certain margin of consideration for sentiment.
Key episodes in the history of Japan-South Korea ties reveal the trope of “amae,” that is, the cultivation of dependency through indulgence. At normalization of bilateral relations in 1965, Japan sought to provide compensation directly to citizens of South Korea who had claims against Imperial Japan, for forced labor, for example. In the end, however, Tokyo accepted Seoul’s preference for a lump sum transferred to the South Korean government, and furthermore agreed to maintain silence over its own stance in favor of direct individual payment. The total payment to South Korea was $300 million, paid over 10 years, supplemented by another $500 million in loans, $200 million of which came from the Japanese government and $300 million from private banks. Given that the gross domestic product (GDP) of South Korea in 1965 was still only about $3 billion, this capital injection was a significant factor in launching the “Miracle on the Han River,” as South Korea’s rapid economic growth since then has been termed. It was, however, not enough to resolve the sense among the South Korean populace that Japan still owed them a debt, so anti-Japanese policies and attitudes remained firmly rooted.
In 1983, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone sought to overcome the freeze in Japan-South Korea ties and arranged to visit Seoul, the first ever visit by a Japanese prime minister, bringing “economic cooperation” totaling $4 billion to help the struggling South Korean economy. The package involved no grants, but rather Export-Import Bank funds and cheap yen credits for industrial and other projects, enabling Japanese corporations to benefit from supplying South Korea with goods and services. Still, with the package from representing almost 5 percent of South Korea’s GDP, it was a welcome boost and led to a trend of warming ties between Tokyo and Seoul. The point is that Japan made overtures to try to improve relations, and while they were once again the minimum necessary and came in a context of Cold War confrontation against North Korea and the Soviet Union, nonetheless the gestures revealed Japan’s basic framework of making special allowances for South Korea.
In the early 1990s the controversy over “comfort women,” and other legacies of World War II, became major issues in Japanese relations with South Korea. The problem of South Korean citizens who, as subjects of the Japanese Empire during the war, had been coerced into working as prostitutes for the Imperial Army, gained prominence in 1991 when three South Korean women sued the Japanese government. Since all individual claims had been legally resolved by the Normalization Treaty between South Korea and Japan, the initial position of the Japanese side was that there was no claim. Recognizing that the matter required a political solution, however, Tokyo negotiated with Seoul the 1993 Kono Statement and the 1994-2007 Asian Women’s Fund, offering an apology and compensation to individuals on a nongovernmental basis. While many have complained that Japan should do more, officially, to make amends for the suffering it caused, Japan’s readiness to transcend its legal obligations and offer payment, even on a quasi-private basis, should be seen as more evidence of its willingness to show consideration for South Korea.
In 1998, the same autumn as Jiang’s hectoring visit to Japan, Tokyo and Seoul reached another breakthrough in coming to terms with history, with the summit between Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Their joint declaration, establishing “A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership toward the 21st Century,” included a formal Japanese apology
for the colonization of Korea. The quid pro quo was that Seoul would finally and completely abandon its practice of playing the “history card” in bilateral relations, a commitment that would not even outlast Kim’s term in office.
Still, Japan remained tolerant of South Korean emotionalism. Local governments in Japan had begun to make it possible for South Korean citizens who were permanent residents of Japan to vote in local elections. Under U.S. auspices, the two sides were preparing to sign an agreement on intelligence sharing, but Seoul backed out at the last minute due to public outrage and suspicions of Japan. Even so, the Noda administration was working in the first half of 2012 on a plan to offer what the Koreans had long demanded: actual direct government compensation to victims of the wartime prostitution system, in part because South Korean women had not participated in the Asian Women’s Fund. The two sides were purportedly close to a deal when Lee personally visited Dokdo and furthermore said that if Japanese Emperor Akihito wanted to visit South Korea he should apologize personally for Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Oddly enough this was not the final straw for Tokyo, which still sought to move Japan-South Korea relations back onto a cooperative path with the advent of the new administrations in both countries. It has been Seoul’s response to these overtures that has pushed opinion in Japan to the breaking point.
Abe and Japan’s Strategy Toward China and South Korea
Since even before the return of the LDP to power in Tokyo, Japan has been making greater efforts to hedge against the failure of its basic aim of incorporating China into the rules-based international system. The advent of the Abe Cabinet has seen a striking increase in the blatancy of Japan’s balancing efforts, and a new firmness with regard to South Korea. Together these make a glaring contrast to the low-profile, nonconfrontational approach of decades past. Still, Japan’s basic aims and the tools it employs have not altered: Japan is a status quo power.
Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea had worsened substantially in the summer of 2012, under the supposedly Asia-friendly DPJ government. Strains in the South Korea relationship, discussed above, were a case of domestic politics in Seoul spilling over into foreign policy, as Lee relied on anti-Japanese populism to rescue the final months of his term from total collapse. With China, by contrast, the contretemps in the relationship arose from Noda’s efforts to avoid a catastrophic challenge to the status quo, which was threatened by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase three of the Senkaku Islands
from their private owner. Instead, Noda intervened to have the government purchase the islands and thereby prevent any provocative visits or construction. The Chinese immediately reacted against this solution and made it the basis for anti-Japanese riots across China.
It was this intense atmosphere, with both South Koreans and Chinese engaging in increasingly critical commentary about Japan, that brought Abe back to the prime minister’s office. Many LDP Diet members felt that Abe’s strong nationalism would even the scales and prevent Japan from being bullied by its neighbors, so they chose him over Ishiba Shigeru, who had received more support from local party chapters.
As prime minister in 2006, Abe had succeeded in “breaking the ice” with China and warming relations strained by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe himself refrained from visiting Yasukuni during his first run in office, in part so that Japan and China could deepen cooperative relations and develop a modus vivendi in the East China Sea. In fact, following this positive gesture the two sides were able to reach agreement in 2008 on East China Sea development, but almost immediately the Chinese side began aggravating the Senkaku-Diaoyu issue by increasing its maritime presence in the area. This led directly to the fishing trawler incident of 2010, which left Abe, and many others, livid. Outraged that China was now disrupting the harmonious relations he had achieved by sacrificing his own preference of visiting Yasukuni, Abe stated while campaigning for the lower house parliamentary elections in December 2012 that his biggest regret was not having paid homage at the shrine.
Even before he was inaugurated, then, Abe was already warning that he would not be fooled the same way twice, as he had lost trust in the Chinese. In the interim, furthermore, China’s relative power had grown a great deal, as the West reeled from the global financial crisis, China passed Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) extended its rapid modernization program. Beijing was becoming increasingly disdainful toward Japan and haughtier in its attitude toward neighboring countries in Southeast Asia as well.
To demonstrate Japan’s support for American leadership and to signal to Southeast Asian nations that they had viable alternatives to simply appeasing Beijing, Abe, upon becoming prime minister, asserted Japan’s readiness
to compete with China. He openly referred to China as a threat, and bluntly called for other neighbors to collectively oppose Chinese coercion. This has certainly marked a change in tenor from the heyday of friendship diplomacy, when all differences of interest were papered over and smiles hid hostility. At the same time, Abe has been cautious to avoid actively threatening China, concentrating instead on the atmospherics of toughness. True enough, Japan has increased defense spending, but only by a trivial amount, in the face of ongoing rapid growth of the PLA budget. In fact, the changes in Japan’s approach have been rhetorical, not real.
One cannot claim that rhetoric is irrelevant, of course. Abe’s paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 brought sharp responses from not only Beijing, but also Seoul, which had previously been more concerned with the island dispute and comfort women issues, and even Washington. Even here, though, Abe clearly signaled to the Chinese before the actual visit that he held a deep sense of grievance and betrayal about the 2006 deal to avoid shrine visits, so that a gesture of some good faith from Beijing was needed to sustain that arrangement. Instead, China announced its air defense identification zone, which included Japanese territory, in November 2013, effectively calling Abe’s threat to resume visits a bluff. Backed into a corner, Abe did go, and notably paid no cost in terms of domestic public support.
In conclusion, greater hedging on Japan’s part does not amount to a change in strategy. Tokyo’s goal remains unaltered: to transform revolutionary, modernizing China into a sophisticated dance partner, one that will not step on Japanese toes. The conundrum for Japan now is that the rhetorical toughness so central to signaling resolve to Beijing has cost Japan in terms of cooperation with South Korea, which many see as the most important potential partner in managing China’s rise.
Ben Self is an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He previously worked at Stanford University, the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.