Tense Japan-China relations: Strategic diplomacy needed to deal with Beijing

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ryosei Kokubun poses at the Mita Public Speaking Hall on Keio University’s Mita Campus in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic ties next year, the Japanese public is growing more and more critical of Beijing’s hard-line stance. The confrontation between the United States and China is also continuing. How should Japan understand and deal with its giant neighbor? In an interview conducted by Toshinao Ishii, senior research fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute, political scientist Ryosei Kokubun argued the case for analyzing Chinese politics calmly and objectively to come up with strategies to deal with Beijing. The following is excerpted from the interview, which was published in The Yomiuri Shimbun in October.

I once conducted an inspection of the area around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture aboard a patrol plane of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat and a China Coast Guard vessel were engaged in a stand-off, surrounded by tall waves. I saw firsthand the tension that was increasing in the area.

The number and capabilities of Chinese military vessels and airplanes have increased considerably. By keeping Japan occupied in the Senkaku Islands, China is trying to facilitate its activities in the East China Sea. We should understand that China’s focus is not a “point” represented by the Senkaku Islands, but an area spanning the whole East China Sea.

China is trying to put pressure on the U.S. military and isolate the Self-Defense Forces. If this situation continues, the East China Sea could become China’s sea.

Japan needs to increase its deterrence. Japan is increasingly deploying missile units in the Nansei Island chain, but Japan also needs to urgently take measures against cyber-attacks and other high-tech warfare.

The presence of the U.S. military will be more important. The key is how the Self-Defense Forces can effectively cooperate with U.S. forces. In addition to maintaining its deterrence, Japan needs strategic diplomacy.

It needs to develop networks with the United States at the center, such as the Quad, a cooperation framework among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India.

China is holding the U.S. military in check to gain an advantage regarding Taiwan and other issues. There is a reason why China keeps talking about the Taiwan issue.

Unification with Taiwan is a national cause for China. A certain amount of tension helps to shore up unity in the leadership.

The biggest problem in China is politics.

All of the current issues have to do with the establishment of Xi’s power base.

The most significant problem in the century-old party is the absence of a system for determining leadership succession. As a result, there have been power struggles over interests and postings. The structure has not changed much since the era of Mao Zedong. The history of Chinese politics is a history of power struggles.

Based on lessons learned from the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping abolished the system of lifetime rule and limited presidential tenures to two terms totaling 10 years.

Xi scrapped the most important provision limiting presidential terms and is edging toward taking the helm for a third term. A coercive political system that ignores the realities of society will collapse sooner or later. Xi’s regime cannot last forever.

A “resolution on history” to create a summary of the 100 years since the foundation of the party was to feature at the Central Committee’s plenary session for the first time in 40 years. [The meeting was held this week.]

Has Xi made any historic achievements in the past nine years in office that would be worth recording in history?

China’s economic growth is decelerating. Hong Kong has been suppressed by force. The “Belt and Road Initiative” to create a huge economic bloc, and relations with Europe, the United States, and Japan have not been going well. The anti-corruption campaign to crack down on corruption is essentially a power struggle.

Xi would face a major challenge in a third term and beyond.

Economic growth is slowing down and disparities are emerging within the middle class, with the number of people who are unable to reap the benefits on the rise.

China recognizes that growing discontent is a destabilizing factor. This is why Xi is emphasizing a “common prosperity” where everyone becomes rich. But as growth slows down, how can he make everyone rich?

I suspect he believes the only way to deal with this is to have overwhelming power and suppress discontent by force.

Power struggles always occur before party congresses.

The recent clampdown on information technology giant Alibaba Group and the crisis at real estate giant China Evergrande Group must be linked to power struggles. China’s large private enterprises are always linked to political forces.

In today’s China, politics has become inward-looking and does not care much about the eyes of the world. Internationalists are not well regarded within the leadership.

China is reconfiguring its diplomatic strategy for a post-pandemic world, focusing on strengthening relations with semi-developed countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

Rather than shared ideologies, these countries share interests with China and are less critical of Beijing on issues such as human rights. They might think authoritarian regimes are more advantageous for governance than democracies that cannot respond quickly to situations.

Looking around the world, there are quite a few nondemocratic countries that have friendly relations with China.

It is impossible to compete with them through value-oriented diplomacy alone. Japan needs diplomacy that is even more strategic and thoughtful. There are many countries with problems regarding relations with China. Japan needs to deepen relations with those countries.

China’s diplomacy with Japan depends on U.S.-China relations. When it is on bad terms with the United States, China approaches Japan without bringing up historical issues.

As Japan has taken a resolute stance in emphasizing the Japan-U.S. alliance in recent years, China appears to have given up on driving a wedge between the allies. Yet what China hopes for is a weakening of Japan-U.S. cooperation.

In its diplomacy with China, Japan needs to stand on the side of the United States, its key security ally. The SDF have deep connections with the U.S. military. The solidarity of the Japan-U.S. alliance must not be weakened. The idea of equidistant diplomacy with the United States and China is not realistic.

It will be hard to realize Xi’s visit as a state guest to Japan next year, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic relations.

Instead, there might be a chance to hold a summit meeting on such occasions as an international conference.

Although talks at such meetings might be quite tough, with many contentious issues to address, having a dialogue is important, especially when relations are not good.

The future of Japan-China relations will depend on how the U.S.-China confrontation and Japan’s dialogue with China develop.

Ryosei Kokubun

Professor emeritus of Keio University

Political scientist Ryosei Kokubun has been studying Chinese politics and Japan-China relations since the 1970s. He served as a professor and then dean of the Faculty of Law at Keio University, before becoming the ninth president of the National Defense Academy, a position he held until March.