By Hashim Abid*
Japan’s recognition plays an integral part in China’s future regional ambitions. That would Japan be willing to accept a powerful China in the future. Beijing till now has not been competent enough to build any diplomatic relations with its Japanese neighbour.
China’s increasingly dismissive view of Tokyo – a country that it no longer regards as its worthy competitor- has not helped either to turn the tide towards Beijing’s favour. China also hasn’t taken any advantage of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, where Trump wants Japan to do more of the heavy lifting by purchasing billions of dollars of American military equipment.
For America too, Japan is essential for containing China, but what type of United States – due to the current political polarization – does that leave Japan to rely on. Since the end of the Second World War, distrust has prevailed from all sides within the US-Sino-Japanese triangle, irrespective of the cynicism that prevails between them Japan still remains the decisive factor.
If China rises and removes the United States from the South-East Pacific in the future, Japan’s acceptance would be a necessary component for China’s regional ambitions. Otherwise, it could create even newer unwanted conflicts. Then the only viable option for Beijing would be to compel Japan into accepting China’s legitimacy in the region. But if Japan is successful in developing nuclear weapons before China’s ascendency, then it would create even further obstacles for Beijing’s future ambitions.
The Triangle : China, Japan & America
The dreadful vivid history is still deeply entrenched within the minds and hearts of the Chinese, where Japan played a massive role in China’s “Century of Humiliation”. The Japanese started their expansion by first taking over China’s vassal state Korea, where it opened up its ports for commerce and declared Korea as an independent state. When Korea signed the Treaty of Kang-Wah ( February 1876), it only intensified the situation between the Chinese and the Japanese, where China persisted in its resilience to consider Korea as its vassal state irrespective of the signed treaty. The conflict continued to cultivate until 1894, where Japan ended up defeating China on the battlefield, where then in 1895 Japan enforced the Treaty of Shimonoseki. China ended up ceding the Liaodong peninsula (part of Manchuria), Formosa, Pescadores and was forced to recognize the independence of Korea.
During the First World War, Japanese expansion started to take turn in a backwards direction, where Washington compelled Japan to accept several treaties and concede its gains. Though, from 1931 onwards, Japan decided to rectify the situation as it was not content with the agreements imposed by Washington. This time Japan emerged more robust than ever, where it regained firm control of Manchuria and Korea until 1939, where it started to get involved in a series of border conflicts with the Soviet Union as it intended to expand beyond Manchuria into outer Mongolia. From that point onwards Japan lost its appetite for further expansion, and especially after the Pearl harbour incident, where it lost all its territorial gains and its imperial strength.
Post-1945 Japan was destroyed, and so was China, both countries assumed that neither side would pose a threat to the other since, both suffered humongous losses in terms of economy, infrastructure, resources and most importantly the millions of lives. But after Mao’s Communist revolution and America’s occupation of Japan, left the two Asian powers once more at odds.
China’s upheaval and the exile of the US-backed nationalists to Taiwan started another chapter of Japanese and Chinese rivalry. But this time a new player entered the bitter competition between the two regional powers, the United States. The involvement of additional power in a pre-existing rivalry between the two Asian powers created even further complexity and insecurity.
The 1951 San Francisco Treaty provided Japan with a security guarantor, which would protect it from a hostile and a vengeful China. On the other hand, it provided the United States with a bulwark in the Asian pacific to counter the Communist aggression, which possessed a threat to America’s imperial interests within the region. Regardless of the treaty, which benefitted both sides, Japan always remained in doubt in regard to the purity of America’s intentions since, it viewed America as an untrustworthy ally that would only remain committed as Japan’s security guarantor until it achieves its self-interests.
There were many reasons for the Japanese to remain sceptical of the United States. It goes without saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the main contributing factors within Japan’s cynicism towards the United States. But also, there was the fear of China and America becoming allies in the future, which would result in replacing Japan as a key American ally in the Asian pacific.
Thus, from the 1950s, numerous Japanese politicians have tried to reconnect with China, not because they wanted to but because they had to. Each Japanese prime minister exercised different policies toward China. Some revolved around uniting the common Asian identity; others were based upon luring China away from a Communist oriented to a Capitalist orientated nation with open trade and others orbited around strict pro-American policies.
All policies possessed a similar objective, which was to never allow China the opportunity for ascendency in the region. And if China does ever rise to power then Japan should able to reach out to the China before the Americans do. Till this day, all political factions within Japan revolve around the same objective, increase Japanese prosperity while maintaining American security without instigating Asian hostility – China. Thus, the Japanese mindset remains confused in regards to America and China, where it needs to be prepared for all possibilities but on the other hand it does not possess the necessary capabilities in order to be prepared for such possibilities. For Japan to overcome such a dilemma, it requires a political will, and this is something which is not in America’s best interest. For this very reason, America has continuously maintained a check on Japan’s domestic political situation.
From an American viewpoint, Japan could also not be trusted as it was determined to reach out to China before America. Thus, when the so-called Great Leap Forward resulted in killing and starving millions of Chinese people – due to Mao’s hideous policies- China ended up becoming desperate for support. America utilized this perfect opportunity to open up China by establishing trade between each other.
When Nixon and Kissinger opened up China, it gave a massive blow to Japan because the United States was able to reach out to China before Japan. Moreover, it produced fear within Japan’s political elites – of the United States abandoning Japan as an essential ally in the region. The political success of opening China helped the Americans to put the Japanese in their place once more and put a stop to its unceasing attempts for independent manoeuvres. Washington too did not adore or trust Japan, according to Kissinger, “The truth is that my colleagues nor I possessed a subtle grasp of Japanese culture and Psychology”, many others, including Kissinger, were also very dubious of Japanese militarism.
Though it turned out that China was never willing to integrate within a liberal democratic capitalist system. China too detests America, where the Chinese government till now has refused to change its autocratic government and its state capitalist economy. China had other intentions, which circled around Deng Xiaoping saying, “hide your strength and bide your time”, therefore, from the mid-seventies till now China has deceived America of its hegemonic intentions.
Over the years Clinton, Bush and Obama tried different styles and means, which revolved around a single objective, to curb China’s growing ambitions of pre-eminence and to alter its behaviour. Today Trump is pursuing the same objective, which is to put a stop to China’s economic growth and its regional aspirations of displacing the United States in the Asian Pacific.
Since 1949 China has a single objective, to have vengeance for the “Century of Humiliation” by overpowering the region. The resistance within the Chinese Communist Party to change has left the United States in frustration over the years, and due to this, the San Francisco Treaty continues to play a colossal importance for the Japanese and the Americans. But Washington’s decision to leapfrog over Tokyo in 1972 left the Japanese in a state of deep mistrust for years to come.
Can there Still Be a Sino-Japanese Alliance?
When countries base their foreign policy upon nationalist interests it results in lacking flexibility, instead it only creates more rigidity within the foreign policy. This is the problem with nationalism it resists to change, it is a certain notion which can only be applied to a specific people.
An ideological nation on the other hand like America can exercise more flexibility in its foreign policy in comparison to a country that is nationalistic. But an incorrect ideology as well can only take a nation so far in its foreign policy. If one examines America’s foreign policy, it has remained considerably pragmatic since 1991; it has revealed itself to be a nation, which is simultaneously idealistic and realistic in its foreign policy. China and Japan are not ideological; they are both one-dimensional powers due to the absence of ideology. Thus, for China to transcend its cultural and historical complications related to its nationalistic sentiments is impossible. Same goes for Japan, the years of Japanese militarism towards China possessed an element of racial superiority, which was a direct result of nationalism.
Even though Japan has borrowed a lot of culture and infrastructure from the Chinese, it is still not enough to bind the two nations together. Reason being, both governments possess a nation-state philosophy, where their interests would not transcend the frontier of nationalism, and if it does, then it is only for the nations’ self-interests. There needs to be an ideology based upon a core idea that binds the two countries together, which can transcend the nationalistic and the patriotic boundaries. Though, such a profound idea does not exist between the two nations, and as for nationalism it can only take one so far.
When China was weak it tried to unite with Japan and lure it out of the American orbit, and vice versa for Japan when China was weak Japan tried to reconnect its Asian identity with China. But ever since China faced precipitous military growth and economic dynamism, China no longer wants to build any significant diplomatic relations with the Japanese any longer. Neither Japan wants to reconnect its Asian identity with the Chinese since they have enormously surpassed Japan in terms of material strength. It clearly shows that both sought to pursue each other only when it benefitted their self-interests. Thus, it is implausible that Japan is willing to accept a powerful China in the future; therefore, China will most likely have to compel Japan to grant it the legitimacy that it requires, which brings another issue. The current “America First” rhetoric has not made it any easier in consolidating Japan in concern to China’s rise.
For years America has played its role of being an external balancer for Japan, however, if America continues to increase the burden upon Japan to take its security matters into its own hands, then the situation might take a drastic turn much sooner . For Trump the mutual treaty of 1951- a linchpin of Asia-Pacific stability- has been very beneficial to both parties but nevertheless, it brings too much burden upon the U.S. and therefore; the terms in the treaty must be reconsidered.
The problem further intensifies concerning the possibility of China displacing America in the Asian pacific, which for Japan is absolutely unacceptable. In 2019, Robert Work, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defence, illustrated the results from a series of classified recent war games, which took place in the Taiwan straits. Their bottom line, “When we fight Russia and China, ‘blue’ [the United States] gets its ass handed to it.” The New York Times also summarized, “In 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost.” In conclusion, the current realities creates a strong possibility of Japan building nuclear weapons of its own to defend itself from threats concerning its national security. Such a reality from occurring in the future is very plausible because once China takes Taiwan, then it is game over for Japan and the United States.
*Hashim Abid is an independent political analyst and researcher. BSc International Relations University of London Lse.