Dialogue between leaders of Japan, China needed

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ryosei Kokubun, former president of National Defense Academy

Japan will continue to face challenges this year, from issues such as the pandemic to foreign affairs and the economy. This is the sixth installment of an interview series to find out how leading figures from various fields view such topics. The following is excerpted from remarks by Ryosei Kokubun, former president of the National Defense Academy, in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun interview.

After the end of the Cold War, it was believed that the advancement of globalization and countries’ interdependence would help stabilize the international order. In recent years, however, anti-globalization movements and the spread of populism show that the world is still made up of individual nations, making me again realize the important role a country plays.

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the tendency of unilateralism will increase down the road. The conflict between democratic and authoritarian regimes has intensified, a typical example of which is the conflict between the United States and China. The U.S.-China relationship will continue to be an important element to examine the global situation this year. Given the profound gap existing between the two countries, it is impossible to significantly improve their relationship, but I believe they will maintain dialogue.

Currently in China, everything is heading toward the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party scheduled for this autumn. The top priority is a seamless transitioning into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s third term. The handling of tech giant Alibaba Group and major real estate developer Evergrande Group as well as the February-March Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics are part of the transition efforts.

China is greatly concerned about being involved in the Western-centered global order led by the United States. As the economic growth that has been driven by the reform and opening-up policy is now slowing down, China has no choice but to further tighten state control and suppress any opposition in an authoritarian manner so as to make the regime stable.

As for Taiwan, China aims to take its time to establish an advantage, so an immediate resolution is not a priority. Beijing seems to be trying to maintain a certain level of tension with Taipei to make use of nationalism within China to concentrate power.

Moreover, China has been focusing its efforts on technological developments in new domains such as cyber, artificial intelligence and outer space. Unlike nuclear weapons, the United States does not fully dominate these new domains and there is no way to prevent China from doing so. Another reason China can vie with the United States is partly because privacy is not an issue.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is being asked to play the difficult role of seeking dialogue with China while placing Japan’s alliance with the United States at the core.

This year a milestone will be commemorated: the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China. However, anti-China sentiment is quite high in Japan. For Japanese people, China lacks transparency as it is unclear whether the country complies with laws and rules. Given the deep-rooted sense of distrust that is prevailing among Japanese people, we cannot expect a dramatic improvement in the relationship with China. It will be difficult to realize Xi’s visit to Japan, but I think both countries should make efforts to create opportunities where Japanese and Chinese leaders have dialogue, including conversations on the phone. The 50th anniversary is an opportunity, but what is important in improving the bilateral relationship is not its appearance, but its content.

Issues regarding history

When it comes to the chilly relations between Japan and South Korea, persistent efforts to resume dialogue are necessary while trying to resolve issues regarding history. Japan should seek to improve the bilateral relationship with South Korea’s new president after the election scheduled for March.

As the situation in East Asia is becoming unstable, the deterioration in the Tokyo-Seoul relationship will trouble the United States more than any other country. We should not forget that China and North Korea are happy about the current situation.

In the security field, besides the United States, Asian nations having difficult relations with China also expect Japan to play a proactive role.

As for enhancing defense, cooperation with the United States is crucial, but Japan should have the ability to develop capabilities of its own. Regarding the defense budget, the process from decision to implementation is too slow from the private sector’s perspective. In addition, it is difficult to make tangible profits in the defense sector. If companies cannot achieve a profit, the defense industry will not develop.

‘Intelligentized warfare’

Kishida has said that the government plans to stipulate in a national security strategy, to be reviewed at the end of this year, the acquisition of the capability to attack enemy bases. The essence of this plan is to acquire the capability to take preemptive measures against attacks on Japan and to counterattack.

The government needs to make efforts to convince the public about the plan, including the terminology for the capability.

In China, the term “intelligentized warfare” is being used to refer to a future war where you do not kill people and you do not die. The winner is determined before a war begins. This is exactly the same idea as presented in “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Japan should be more worried about being late in the game in cutting-edge fields such as cyber, AI and electromagnetic waves.

It is necessary to assume a situation where cyber-attacks shut down public infrastructure facilities and destroy the defense system. Increasing the defense budget should be welcomed, but what is fundamental is people. Having a mid- and long-term strategy on how to develop human resources is extremely important.


Ryosei Kokubun was born in Tokyo in 1953 and earned a doctorate in political science from Keio University. He specializes in modern Chinese studies and international relations in East Asia. He served as professor at the university’s Faculty of Law, among other positions. Later, he became president of the National Defense Academy from 2012 through March 2021. He has written books on themes such as politics and bureaucracy of modern China and the Japan-China relationship from the perspective of Chinese politics.