Tokyo-Beijing Relations in the New Millennium

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Tokyo-Beijing Relations in the New Millennium


Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review


WHILE much attention has been given to the emergence of China as a regional and world power, recent analyses have focused on the implications of China's new role for its relations vis-a-vis another single nation, usually the United States. This article presents a more nuanced picture by positing a complex relationship between China and Japan.

The recent economic rise of China has had a growing impact on Japanese perceptions and expectations for the future. A mid-1995 Nikkei-Dow Jones poll found that 16 per cent of the Japanese people already regarded China to be the strongest economic power in the world, and 66 per cent predicted that China would be the strongest economic power by 2015. At the same time, many Japanese have doubts about China's prospective political stability, and how this might affect Japan. China's path toward a socialist market economy appears successful so far, but inflation and growing income disparity could breed political instability, as could uneven development and the expanding income gap between southern and northern China. Many in Japan feel that China's economic development and income gap are weakening the political grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This kind of concern reached its height before the effective succession of power from Deng Xiaoping, but the problem itself remains, and the political instability in China will affect relations between Japan and China.

Potential sources of chaos in China are clear, including over-population, a threatened environment, ethnic tension, rising unemployment, and in particular a slow economic growth. High growth rates, characteristic of the early stages of industrialisation, do not usually persist as an economy matures. The Asian currency crisis raised serious concerns for regional powers like Japan and China. It is not yet clear how instability in the rest of Asia's currencies and stock markets will affect China, but this is no reason for China to be unconcerned. China insists that the peg of the Hong Kong dollar to the US dollar will be kept for the moment, but if it were to fail, then there would be serious repercussions on the Chinese economy. Thus, emerging trends in China have left many Japanese with a vague sense of foreboding.

China's hazardous combination of rapid economic growth, continuing military modernization, and increased emphasis on naval build-up is of growing concern to the Japanese. Also, China's missile test near Taiwan in March 1996 caused much trouble and great fears in the US and Japan. Fortunately, given the increased tension, the US Navy has been able to control manoeuvres of the Chinese navy because China's military capabilities are technologically dated and less reliable. Nevertheless, the exchange of military missions and ministers between Japan and China has been carried out recently without much domestic discussion.

Sino-Japanese Cooperation

Subtle changes in Japan's China policy can be seen from two perspectives. First, while continuing to stress the importance of incorporating China into the world community, Sino-Japanese cooperation on regional affairs seems aimed at pronouncing Japan's bid for a regional leadership role.

Tokyo has expressed its interest in becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council in order to upgrade its international standing to a level compatible with its economic status. To this end, Japan has offered economic carrots to Asian countries in pursuit of a multi-directional foreign policy. One instance of such an incentive was the lifting of economic and political sanctions against China by Western countries and Japan. The United States has also been softening its policy toward China, as exemplified by its decision to extend the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) clause to Beijing. In July 1990 at the G-7 summit in Houston, the Japanese government followed suit and announced its plan to resume official development assistance (ODA) to China, which was suspended in mid-1989.

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